After 33 years of hard labour, the founder and director of the Society, Work and Development (SWOP) Institute, Professor Edward Webster (PhD 1983) retired in June 2009. Formerly the head of Wits Sociology for a decade, Webster?s illustrious career culminated in his being awarded the first Ela Bhatt Visiting Professorship for Development and Decent Work at theInternational Centre for Development and Decent Work (ICDD) at Germany?s Kassel University, from October 2009.
?My visiting professorship is the start of my second career,? explains Webster. ?I will be supervising 20 PhD students and embarking on a research project entitled ?Work, Livelihoods and Economic Security in the 21st Century?, comparing India and South Africa.?
The ICDD is a global think tank; an interdisciplinary network of seven universities, of which Wits is one. The Ela Bhatt visiting professorship is named after Ela Rameesh Bhatt who founded the now million-member-strong Self-Employed Women?s Association (SEWA) in India in 1972.
?This professorship recognises the great work of many South Africans in researching and finding answers to national and international labour questions,? elaborates Webster. ?I?m deeply honoured.?
Acting director of SWOP and Webster?s former student Dr Andries Bezuidenhout (PhD 2004) comments: ?The phrases ?Eddie Webster? and ?retirement? come across as a contradiction in terms. In our view, as the Society, Work and Development Institute, we have merely released him from administrative duties as director, to focus on things that he has always been good at: research and graduate supervision.?
Webster?s research has focused on theories of democratic transition; changing workplace representation and its relationship to economic performance; and the changing role of labour during the consolidation of democracy in South Africa.
A visiting professorship is befitting of a scholar who, through presiding over the International Sociological Association?s Research Committee on Labour Movement and launching The Global Labour Journal in January 2010, helped transform the study of labour internationally.
Webster?s contribution to research was recognised when the American Sociological Association awarded him the 2009 prize for the Best Scholarly Monograph on Labour, for co-authoring Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the Age of Insecurity (Blackwells: Oxford).
According to Business Day senior associate editor and former student, Hilary Joffe (BA 1979, BA Hons 1980), ?[Eddie] established labour studies as a serious academic subject in an era when many considered it subversive.?
Arguably Webster?s most significant contribution has been in helping to make generations of students more aware of how society shapes their lives and how they can contribute to changing society for the better.
?It is not possible to separate teaching and research,? asserts Webster. ?Research brings new knowledge into the classroom and teaching gives you feedback from fresh minds. The most fulfilling role a teacher can play is to build the capacity of a student in a way that allows them to transcend their teacher and contribute to new knowledge.?
?The finest tribute a student can give to a teacher is to go beyond them,? he continues. ?As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ?one repays a teacher badly if one remains a pupil?.?
A selection of Webster?s former postgraduate students made just such a tribute when he asked them to reflect on Nietzsche?s statement in relation to their work. The result was a collection of essays entitled ?Public Classrooms: Essays in Honour of Professor Edward Webster?. The ?festschrift? was presented at a colloquium held in July 2009 to mark Webster?s retirement.
?Eddie chose to invest all his energies into developing the next generation of industrial sociologists,? writes Dr Sarah Mosoetsa (BA 1999, BA Hons 2000, MA 2001, PhD 2005) in the foreword to the festschrift. ?His tenure? helped shape the department into a leading sociology department in the country and is?seen as one of the most successful in the department?s history!?
Head of the Johannesburg Development Agency, Lael Bethlehem (BA 1989, BA Hons 1991, MA 1994) recalls that Webster took his students as seriously as he took labour. ?Eddie never patronised his students. His interaction with us was not influenced by our race or our gender or our age. For Eddie, there was simply no hierarchy.?
From the first days of trade unions for black workers in the early 1970s, Webster was one of the labour movement?s most significant and vociferous activists. ?It was Eddie?s ability to engage with us, engage with the unfolding trade union movement, engage with our personal dilemmas that made him the epicentre of energies,? recounts Dr Ari Sitas (BA 1978, BA Hons 1979, PhD 1984).
?We have made tremendous strides since I was arrested in December 1975 for promoting ?worker unrest? [calling for the recognition of trade unions for black workers],? concedes Webster. ?But we are no closer to ?work and security for all? as articulated in the Freedom Charter.?
?Eddie will never truly retire,? concludes Dr Rob Lambert (PhD 1988). ?He will continue to apply his keen intellect, deep humanity and restless energies to the cause of working men and women in the globalised economy.?