A tribute to Professor Eddie Webster

Sithembiso Bhengu

In the evening of Monday, 5 March 2024, we learned with shock of the sudden passing of Eddie Webster, an esteemed Emeritus Professor at Wits University. Prof. Webster’s sudden passing will perhaps leave the biggest gaping hole in the entire labour studies scholarship in South Africa and internationally. ‘‘Eddie’’, as he was affectionately known, was the single most recognised sociologist and labour scholar our country has produced. Prof. Webster has contributed immensely to labour studies, through his vast and evolving, and yet, always poignant research. He has produced, during the long span of his intellectual career of more than five decades, new scholars and intellectuals, and has contributed as a public scholar, translating his research and intellectual work to the public, and to the struggles of workers in the public sphere.

At the beginning of his intellectual life, Prof. Webster was part of the young activists who became prominent in the historic 1973 Durban Workers’ Strikes, coalescing academic scholarship with public sociology, and collaborating with workers waging their struggles. This led to the re-emergence of militant black trade unions from the late 1970s. This significant work at a public level contributed to worker struggles, the formation of FOSATU, which later became COSATU, the largest trade union federation, which wages the worker struggles at shopfloor, and was a critical voice in the struggle against apartheid oppression. Academically, Eddie’s research in the 1970s and the early 1980s contributed to the labour process theory, through the publication of the book Cast in a Racial Mould: Labour Process and Trade Unionism in the Foundries. In this book, Webster expanded on Harry Braverman’s theory on the labour process theory in Labor and Monopoly Capital, as well as Michael Burawoy’s theorising of labour process in everyday life in Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism by theorising South African factory regimes as an ‘‘apartheid workplace’’, which he termed racial despotism.

As part of his contribution to labour studies, Eddie collaborated with workers from the 1970s throughout the dark days of oppressive apartheid workplace regimes, researching struggles that workers waged against capitalist exploitation in the workplace, and against the illegitimate apartheid regime. From the 1970s through to the democratic era, Prof. Webster also worked as researcher and supervisor, producing multiple progressive labour scholars, many of whom have become leading professors in sociology, labour studies, and the related fields. His contribution and that of many other leading left sociological academics on the scholarship of the workplace, workers, and worker struggles, as well as trade unions and community struggles grew exponentially from the late 1980s, making the South African industrial sociology a leading field internationally. The growing influence of shop floor and trade unions also saw innovative developments of research units in industrial sociology. Eddie was the founder of the Wits University’s Society, Work & Politics Institute (SWOP). The growing influence of industrial sociology as a leading component of South African sociology also saw the establishment of similar units and, or centres in other leading South African universities, like the Industrial, Organisation and Labour Studies (IOLS) at the University of Natal.

From the early 1990s, Prof. Webster continued with his research, focusing on work and workers, initiating research and scholarship on reconstruction in the South African industrial relations regime, as our politics and work places were engaged in negotiations towards a transition from a system of apartheid and its antagonistic industrial relations regime. Webster again emerged as a leading scholar and contributor to research and processes that explored possibilities for a workplace order that goes beyond the racial mould, implementing projects towards participative workplace order between management and trade unions. These served as a basis for initiatives towards a corporatist approach embraced in South Africa’s industrial relations legislative and policy regime post 1994.

Together with Sakhela Buhlungu and David Ginsburg, Eddie participated in critical research hon Taking Democracy Seriously, which grew into institutionalised research surveys on South African trade unions and democracy.

Even after the transition to democracy, Prof. Webster continued to place the workplace at the centre of research in labour studies. His research work and the work of many research scholars he supervised produced seminal work on the extension of workplace regimes, a decade after democracy. In 2005, he co-edited, with Karl von Holdt, a book titled Beyond Apartheid Workplace: Studies in Transition,which presented several cases of the transition in South African workplaces, following the 1994 breakthrough. In the book, Webster and von Holdt argue that while the South African regulatory framework has jettisoned apartheid and racial ordering, the triple transition: namely political transition, economic transition, and social transition are complex and contested. In 2008, with Rob Lambert, and AndriesBezuidenhout, Prof Webster tackled globalisation, again using research on the workplace in South Africa, Australia, and Korea to ground our understanding of globalisation beyond Manuel Castells’ notion of globalisation as ephemeral spaces of flows. In the book Grounding Globalization: Labour in the Age of Insecurity, Webster, Lambert and Bezuidenhout highlight significant local inflections of global capitalism, its impact on workplaces, state formations, as well as policy and impact on labour and their communities.

In 2012 Webster took the most concrete expression of his contribution as a public scholar/activist by joining the Chris Hani Institute (CHI) as director, a position he held until he joined Wits University on a full-time basis towards the end of 2016 to initiate another key research centre, the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies. Prior to that, Eddie had served as CHI board member between 2008 and 2012. During his tenure at the CHI Prof. Webster initiated several collaborative projects locally and internationally, seeking alternatives to neoliberalism, forging linkages between the SACP-COSATU axis with academia and research institutions. During his tenure at the institute, he produced several significant publications on alternatives to neoliberalism. In 2013 the CHI hosted a roundtable on “Comparing Brazil to South Africa: A Labour Perspective”, which resulted in a collection of essays, published in A Lula Moment for South Africa? Lessons from Brazil. The collection, published in 2014, looked at a combination of rapid economic growth and steady reduction in extreme poverty during the tenure of President Lula da Silva of Brazil, between 2003 and 2010. Another publication was a training booklet on alternatives to neoliberalism, a collaborative project with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, published in 2016.

In 2013 the CHI became part of COSATU’s initiative to reconnect with its members and overcome the representational gap among vulnerable workers, forming a Task Team on Vulnerable Workers, which produced a report on Overcoming the Decent Work Deficit. The report was presented at the 2013 COSATU Bargaining Conference. From these engagements, in July 2015, Webster co-authored a paper titled ‘Diagnostic Tool and Policy Instrument for the Realisation of Decent Work, which was published in the International Labour Review, a journal of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Other key projects that Prof. Webster led included the republication of the literature and books written by workers and worker leaders. This was part of a collaborative effort Eddie initiated with Jacana publishers. The books and the literature were published in a collection titled Hidden Voices. This project saw the publication of written works by workers, as well as some life stories of workers, including Alfred Qabula’s A Working Life: Cruel beyond Belief, a book written by Jean Fairbairn; Flashes of Her Soul: The Life of Jabu Ndlovu, a book by Mandlenkosi Makhoba; a book by Petrus Tom titled,The Story of One Tells the Struggle of All: Metalworkers under Apartheid; and a book written by Kally Forrest, Bonds of Justice: The struggle for Oukasie. What was more significant about these publications was Eddie’s commitment to organic intellectualism, which recognised these worker leaders and their contribution, not only in worker struggles, but also in expanding the intellectual project organically from their concrete experiences. As CHI director, Webster also spear headed an important conversation on the national question, which resulted in the publication of a book edition in 2017 titled The Unresolved National Question in South Africa: Left Thought under apartheid and beyond.

On his return to Wits, through the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies, Prof. Webster focused again on his research on the workplace, expanding on his work on decent work to research platform workers, also known as gig-workers, labour process, and forms of representation. Through this research exploration, Eddie revisited Eric Olin Wright’s ‘‘power resources approach’’ to explore forms of worker representation in the new forms of work, referred to as platform work. This research focus took Eddie to new terrains of researching workers in precarious, and in many cases, own-account work arrangements in the global South. This exploration saw numerous ground-breaking locality studies being undertaken in South Africa, and in several countries in the sub-Saharan African regions including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and so on, as well as in Latin America. Some of the work he produced with a new cohort of scholars he supervised included an edited book published towards the end of 2023, titled Recasting Workers’ Power: Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age.

In 2019 Eddie graciously accepted our invitation to facilitate a collaborative workshop between the CHI and the Sociology Department at the University of Johannesburg on migration in the global South. His facilitation, and the discussions emanating from the workshop, resulted in the publication of an edited book, titled Migration in Southern Africa - IMISCOE Regional Reader, published in 2022.

In paying tribute to this giant of a scholar, academic and activist, I want to highlight the following key observations in the intellectual and activist life and work of Prof. Eddie Webster:

First, throughout the five decades of his intellectual life, Eddie had mastered the art of intellectual re-invention, partly because he took seriously the expansion of scholarship through scores of generations of new scholars, the postgraduate students he supervised and collaborated with in research.

Second, Eddie never left the workplace but remained committed to the sociology of the study of the workplace and workers. When sociological research and scholarship began to take a shiftfrom the workplace, Eddie continued in his commitment to the sociology of work, as of workers, anchored in theorising and re-theorising Marxist labour process theory: be it his earlier research on Cast in the Racial Mould, to his work on Beyond the Apartheid Workplace, or Grounding Globalisation or his latest contribution on Re-casting Workers’ Power, Eddie’s research and scholarship kept our focus on the significance of researching capitalism and the workplace, always placing the study of workers at the centre of sociological imagination.

Third, Eddie was a prolific public scholar, beautifully intersecting intellectual/academia with political and society struggles: be it worker struggles or community struggles and, struggles encountered in the global South. Last, Prof. Webster was committed to the production of new scholarship, a goal he achieved by producing and reproducing new generations of intellectuals: from the numerous postgraduate students, many of whom, later became his colleagues and established intellectuals. His intellectual generosity truly knew no bounds!

We pass our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to Luli Callinicos, his life partner, the children and the entire family for such a sudden loss. We also pass our condolences to the Wits community, SWOP, SCIS, and the Sociology Department.

Lala kahle Mkhulu Eddie, as I used to jokingly call him, ‘‘my intellectual grandparent’’ supervised Ari Sitas, who later became my PhD supervisor.

Rest well now, your contribution speaks for itself!

Sithembiso Bhengu,
Director at the Chris Hani Institute

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