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OBITUARY: The ‘Sociology Madala’ who shaped the way we think about the world

- Imraan Valodia

Eddie Webster was the ultimate socially engaged academic who played a key role in the labour movement

I heard of Eddie Webster’s passing shortly after 5pm on Tuesday March 5. Until that moment, though he was at almost 82 by far the oldest member of the staff at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) at Wits University, it had not once crossed my mind that he would not be with us forever. He was that sort of person: always effervescent, always intellectually curious, always engaged in the university, always engaged in social change, never quiet. 

Edward Webster was born on March 29 1942 and spent his early childhood at the famous Methodist school, Healdtown, in the Eastern Cape, where both his parents taught just after World War 2. Healdtown is the school where Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Archie Mafeje and other luminaries of the struggle were educated. Eddie’s father resigned from Healdtown in the early 1950s, but this upbringing influenced his own trajectory into education and liberation politics.

My own connection to Eddie, indirectly, goes back to my childhood, and another intellectual giant — Rick Turner. Foszia Fisher, Rick Turner’s then partner, is my cousin. I have vivid memories, as a young child, of Turner being at the Valodia family home in Greyville, Durban. In the early 1970s, a white man at our Indian family home was not an everyday occurrence.

My dad had a very special relationship with Foszia and Turner’s murder by the apartheid state in 1978 had a huge effect on our family. However, it was only when I was a student in the early 1980s, and drawn into supporting workers’ struggles in Durban, that I began to fully understand the significance of Turner’s work and the importance to SA’s future trajectory of the intellectual group that cohered around him and Foszia.

Eddie was a key player in that milieu, which not only saw the possibilities for challenging apartheid and creating a new society, but also acted on the imperative to build organisations of workers to reshape the workplace, and the social and economic fabric of SA. Eddie and I spoke endlessly about the importance of what he called “the Durban moment”.

The 1973 Durban strikes, the rise of the trade union movement and, somewhat associated with it, the connections to Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, were important turning points in SA history. It was a period in which Eddie was a key actor, and which he brilliantly captured in his writings.

My first real engagement with Eddie was in the late 1980s, when I worked at the Trade Union Research Project (TURP) at the University of Natal. TURP and the Sociology of Work Programme (SWOP), which Eddie had formed and led with distinction at Wits University, provided research and other technical support to the nascent trade union movement. I was at the time doing some work for the unions on the casualisation of work in the retail industry. Extended and Sunday shopping had just been introduced and the unions were grappling with retailers’ use of casual labour for extended and Sunday shopping hours (yes, there was a time when retailers closed at 1pm on Saturdays and only opened at 8am on Monday!).

Being a young economist, I presented my research, emphasising the empirical data. Eddie, whose task it was to comment on my paper, reprimanded me for not having a theory and promptly drew a sketch on the chalkboard to give me one. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten and one which I am sure all his students will identify with.

One of Eddie’s greatest and most consistent contributions is his insight into power — not just who has it and who does not, but more important, how it may be possible for those without power to reshape the balance of power by collective organisation and action. This goes all the way back to his first book, Cast in a Racial Mould, on deskilling in SA’s metal industry. It goes all the way forward to his last book, Recasting Workers’ Power: Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age. And it’s found in all of his work outside the university too — from the early formation of trade unions to working with Uber drivers in the digital age.

It was a life’s work that not only sought to understand how politics, economics, technology and skills shape the workplace, but also how collective action by workers can shape and reshape wider economic and social trajectories.

A second hallmark of his work was his ability to use our context in SA and in what has become known as the Global South to understand social and economic power in our world, and to shape how others, including the North, understand power in the global economy. For Eddie, academic research was not about replicating work done in the leading institutions in the North, and adapting it to our context. Rather it was to use insights from our own context to shape global challenges.

A third feature of his life’s work was his deep appreciation of the university, and the links between academic rigour and advancing economic and social rights. He was the absolute exemplar of a socially engaged academic.

All of these features of Eddie’s work and intellectual leadership, shaped the formation and research agenda of SCIS, where he spent the last nine years of his more than five decades at Wits.  

Eddie, who on social media had taken on the title “Sociology Madala”, had a highly productive 82 years. But, sadly, two projects remain uncompleted. First, his next intellectual project was to deal with how we understand the SA nation. In his usual provocative way, it was to answer the question: when does a settler stop being a settler? Second, he stopped working full-time in December 2023 to spend more time with his beloved life partner and collaborator Luli Callinicos. That was just two months ago. He left us much too soon. Hambe Kahle Sociology Madala.

A memorial service will be held in the Wits Great Hall at 10am on March 16.

 Prof Imraan Valodia is pro-vice chancellor and director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University

This article first appeared on the Business Day.