How Society Works and How To Change It

On Saturday 2 April 2016 Rhodes University will confer an Honorary Doctorate on Professor Edward Webster.

Internationally recognised sociologist, Professor Edward Webster, is a decent human being, which is the highest praise of all.

In this era when we should be focusing on decency, equality and sustainability as the lifeline of our species, we continue to experience a voracious winner-takes-all world, despite its inevitable outcome: collective fall.

For Webster it has been a lifelong pursuit to try and demonstrate the folly and fate of this approach.

“If you want to maintain power you have to learn to share it,” he says.

For five decades he has tirelessly pursued better conditions for workers; decent wages and the education of workers. He has helped to shape global labour studies and pioneered the academic study of the Sociology of Work and Labour in South Africa.

His social awareness developed early roots in his heart home, the Eastern Cape, where his parents were teaching at Healdtown when he was born. Situated near Fort Beaufort and founded by Methodist missionaries in 1855, it based its teaching approach on the ethos that all people, given the chance, would succeed.

“My mother Enid taught English and music and my father Lionel taught maths and science,” Webster explains. “Their pupils included Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe (who later founded the Pan Africanist Congress). Robert was a star English pupil who achieved the highest marks in the Cape Province – schools throughout the Cape wrote the same exams at the time.”

Lionel went on to teach science and chemistry in the Education Department at Rhodes University, and Edward, fondly known as Eddie, enrolled at Rhodes in 1961 to study history.

In an article he wrote for Rhodes University’s centenary in the African Sociological Review in 2005, Webster reflects on his student years:

“I had spent the year before coming to Rhodes working and hitchhiking my way through Britain, Europe, North and East Africa. These travels had aroused my curiosity in the process of decolonisation that had begun in Africa, reaching a climax in 1960 when twelve states were to become independent.”

In South Africa, however, 1960 was the start of what Webster describes as “a ruthless counter-revolution that began with the banning of the key political institutions of the national liberation movement, and only ended in 1990 when Mandela was released”.

At the outset of what transpired to be South Africa’s 30-year war of independence, Webster was proving to be a natural scholar.

“I was fascinated by the insights I gained from an outstanding generation of lecturers, led by the indomitable Winnie Maxwell. Opinionated and demanding, she inspired me to read widely, encouraging me to go on to do an Honours degree in history.”

He says his Honours year changed his intellectual life. While researching a paper he was writing on the changing patterns of land ownership in early eighteenth century England, he came across a book by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who had been appointed as Master of Balliol College, Oxford University.

Hill explained that the English civil war was not about endless tales of kings and queens being randomly beheaded, that it was best understood as a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

“The scales fell from my eyes,” he recalls. He started researching Marxism, capitalism, colonialism, socialism and sociology.

“Sharp ideological differences existed amongst the students over the process of decolonisation unfolding around us,” he explains. “On the one hand there was a small group of students influenced by academics like Professor Terence Beard who were sympathetic to the claims of the African majority. On the other hand there was a large majority of students who wanted nothing to do with politics and objected to a liberal-dominated SRC attempting to pass a resolution condemning colonialism.”

Webster’s political consciousness expanded and he became SRC President in 1964, but it was his experience as a rugby player that really drew him into active anti-apartheid politics.

“At the start of the 1965 season the Bantu Administration Department (of BAD as we used to call it) banned black people from watching rugby on the Rhodes Great Field on the grounds that it was a ‘white area’.”

Webster explains that black people from the townships of Grahamstown were their keenest supporters and he called for a one-day protest sit-in on the library steps. “The over one hundred students who participated sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ the signature song of the civil rights movement in the United States. It was my first open anti-apartheid act and one of my fellow rugby players called me a communist.”

From then on Webster wanted to understand “how society worked and how to change it”.

He moved to Joburg, initially teaching history at King David High School in Linksfield where he found a kindred spirit and wife in fellow teacher, Luli Callinicos. Luli evolved into one of South Africa’s most respected social historians, political activists and authors.

They have children and grandchildren together and they live in their longstanding family home in Observatory, Joburg. Webster describes it as “an old suburb bordering the inner city, still reasonably intact but constantly on the edge”.

After his stint at King David, Webster went on to get his Master’s and Doctorate, including studying at Oxford University.

In the early 1970s, in the wake of the Durban worker strikes he took up a position at the then University of Natal. Here, he played an instrumental role in the formation of the first workers’ college in South Africa, the Institute of Industrial Education. 

He taught complex theories on labour in ways that were entirely accessible to workers, many of whom had minimal education in the apartheid era. Thus began his combination of academic research and commitment to worker education and the establishment of independent black trade unions.

In 1976 he left Durban to take up a post in the Department of Sociology at Wits University where he spent the rest of his academic career, including serving as head of department for ten years. During his time at Wits he supervised 42 PhD and Master’s students, many of his graduates are key industrial relations leaders in South Africa today.

In 1983, during his time at Wits, he founded, and for twenty-four years was Director of the Sociology of Work Unit, now the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP). In 2008, SWOP was recognised as a strategic area of Wits University’s research and developed into an institute.

He formally retired from Wits in 2009 but has remained an active researcher and author, with countless papers and seven books to his name.

“The old idea that you retire at 60 and go fishing is a concept of the past, it doesn’t work that way anymore. I’m using this time to consolidate and reflect more,” says Webster who is currently supervising seven PhD students and is Professor Emeritus in SWOP, Director of the Chris Hani Institute (CHI), and a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University.

He is in the process of developing a new research cluster in SWOP, in consultation with its director, Professor Karl von Holdt. The theme is Work, Informalisation and Democracy.

“I’m looking at the informal economy, which is a distinct class of people who exist across the globe,” Webster explains. “In India, for example, the informal economy accounts for 93% of the economy, in Ghana it is 80%, in South Africa is 30%. In our market many of the workers in the informal economy are from other African countries and Asia.

“They are highly entrepreneurial and they work damn hard yet most are classified as ‘illegal immigrants’. I believe they need to be brought into the system; they need to be able to settle, buy houses, have access to benefits like medical aid and contribute to the economy. If you consider that only six million people are currently on South Africa’s tax system, it is not sustainable.”

He offers several examples in Gauteng:

The recyclers

The recyclers of paper, tins and cardboard boxes get up really early in the morning to collect these items in their pushcarts all over the city and they then sell to recycling centres. They are mini-entrepreneurs within the green economy.

Clothing sweatshops

There are so many men and women who are skilled at sewing from countries like Ghana and Malawi who are working in these little sweatshops in abandoned buildings in the inner city’s Fashion District, producing beautiful garments.

Private security guards

Guarding homes and buildings is the fastest-growing occupation in Gauteng. The guards are supposed to be South African citizens or permanent residents but a lot of them are not.

Zama Zamas

The Zama Zamas or artisanal miners are mining gold in our abandoned mines with hand tools. They bring the gold to the surface where women process it, all illegally, of course. Many of these people are from Zimbabwe and it’s a livelihood for them, albeit a dangerous one, and they then sell the gold into the formal gold market.

None of these people have contracts or regulated employment and they don’t have a voice because they fall outside the regulatory framework of the industrial relations system and they do not belong to any union.

“Unless we bring them into our system our future will look increasingly at a labour market where the majority of workers are informal,” says Webster. “Rather than seeing them as aliens who are taking away our jobs, we need to see them as future citizens.”

Webster says the same applies to the students in our universities who are from other parts of Africa and the world: “Many are outstanding students and we need to encourage them to become citizens, which will help to build our economy.”

Webster says that the majority of students in South Africa fill him with hope for the country. He offers the example of two of his Master’s students, one is from Gauteng and the other is from Mpumalanga.

“These young women are the winners of the new South Africa,” he explains. “They are part of the #FeesMustFall campaign and they have seized the educational opportunities that are now open to people from working class backgrounds. At the same time they are highly disciplined about their studies, they are determined to succeed and to have their voices heard.

“I see the embryo of a new South Africa in our students but at the same time I see the downside of decaying public facilities and abuse of power.

It is going to be a difficult decade of active citizenry and young people entering the economy who are at risk of inheriting a broken system.

“I do believe there is still a basis for a richer, more diverse, more economically stable national project but it is going to require national concentration to pull us back from the edge of conflict and what is beginning to look like a failed state.”

Webster’s hope for South Africa is derived from “the ordinary people in this country, the hardworking people who are making a way for themselves and their families”. He explains: “It was ordinary people who broke down apartheid and these are the people who are creating a new culture, what Steve Biko called a joint culture.”

Article by Heather Dugmore

Picture by William Matlala

Source:  Communications and Advancement

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