Professor Edward Webster with his lifetime achievement award. (Picture: Wits Vuvuzela / Masechaba Kganyapa / Wikipedia)

The South African Marxist Eddie Webster died of a heart attack on Tuesday last week at the age of 81. He was an important figure in the development of the powerful black workers movement that doomed the apartheid system in South Africa. Eddie was born in the Eastern Cape. His mother taught Nelson Mandela, who in 1994 became the first black president of South Africa. I first met Eddie when we were both students at Oxford University at the end of the 1960s.

I remember him predicting that apartheid would be brought down by an escalating guerrilla struggle. He helped to prove himself wrong. Eddie recently recalled that in the early 1970s he had followed the great socialist historian Edward Thompson into teaching for the Workers Educational Association in Yorkshire. When he returned to South Africa, Eddie co-founded with the philosopher Rick Turner the Institute for Industrial Education—the first workers’ college in South Africa.

This was at what has been called the “Durban moment”. Mass strikes in Durban in January to February 1973 announced the arrival of a new African working class. The apartheid system tried to reduce all African workers to “temporary sojourners” in the cities—migrants who would return home to the rural Bantustans run by tribalist collaborators. But rapid industrial development in the 1960s and 1970s made the South African economy dependent on an increasingly skilled and educated black working class settled in the urban areas.

This shift in the balance of economic power underlay the Durban strikes. They sparked the explosive growth of independent unions. By the end of the 1970s the regime had been forced to legalise African trade unions in the hope of incorporating them. Instead, the mushrooming workers’ movement intersected with risings in the black townships, first in Soweto in 1976 and then nationwide in 1984-6. Eddie was in the thick of all this.

He belonged to a generation of white anti-apartheid intellectuals who shared in the 1960s revival of Marxism while studying in Europe or North America and then returned to the struggle at home. Eddie said he and Turner were committed to “building an independent power base through participation at the shopfloor level”. The risks were high. Turner was murdered by the security police. Eddie himself was tried but acquitted under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1976.

In his first book, Cast in a Racial Mould (1985), he offered a classic Marxist analysis of the transformation of the working class in the engineering industry. A racist labour aristocracy dominated by white craft unions was being displaced by mass trade unionism organising semi-skilled black workers. Alas, the path taken by this politics proved complicated.

The new movement was consolidated when the Congress of South African Trade Unions was launched in 1985. But the so-called “workerists” who wanted the unions to pursue working class interests independently found themselves outmanoeuvred by “populists” supporting the African National Congress (ANC). The latter put national liberation before socialism. Under Mandela the ANC secured political power but left economic power in the hands of capital. Successive ANC governments have implemented neoliberal policies that weakened organised labour.

Long based at Wits University in Johannesburg, Eddie remained what the sociologist Michael Buroway called “a perpetual motion machine—a windmill”. Warmly and kindly, he encouraged young scholars. And he maintained his unflinching commitment to the workers’ movement. These past years we used to meet on the Greek island of Ithaki.

Both my family and that of Eddie’s wife, Luli Callinicos, herself an important historian of the liberation struggle, come from there. Sitting on the beach last August, Eddie told me about his latest book—a study of gig workers in cities across Africa. The working class might have changed, but it remained essential to understand how it can resist and lay the basis of its liberation. Eddie’s passing is very sad, but his life shows the importance of socialist theory and political commitment to workers’ self-emancipation.

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