IT was an indication of sheer desperation that the apartheid state assassinated university teachers. Rick Turner was murdered in January 1978. And on 1 May 1989, David Webster was shot dead at the age of 44 outside his home in Troyeville, Johannesburg. By a strange quirk of fate, Workers’ Day was being celebrated officially for the first time.

Webster was a typical university activist of the 1980s. A social anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, he was involved in the National Union of South African Students, trade union affairs and the boycott of Rowntree, action to stop housing evictions, the white component of broad front politics, and even a musicians’ association. He was a quietly charismatic, relatively low-profile figure whose activism was based on personal conviction about justice and the need for solidarity.

He was best known for his work with political detainees. Barbara Hogan was one of his students and her detention propelled him into the support work that radically changed his life. He also knew Neil Aggett, the trade unionist who died in detention in 1982. Throughout the 1980s he worked with detainees and their families in Johannesburg and monitored the security police, making sure their activities would not go unrecorded. As meetings became more difficult under the State of Emergency, cover was provided by afternoon tea parties for which Webster would make jam sandwiches (Pietermaritzburg was more upmarket – here, Chelsea buns were the standard fare.)

At the time of his murder Webster and his partner, Maggie Friedman, were working on an expose of state death squads and the use of assassination during the era of reform and repression. He became both victim and proof of his own research. His academic work on migrant labour among the Tembe Thonga had taken him to Kosi Bay where he might have stumbled on information about weapons supply to Renamo or smuggling. An extraordinary amount of nefarious activity was going on near the Mozambique border in the late 1980s and the Hiemstra Commission later accepted that he was under surveillance in Zululand. His posthumously published pamphlet on state repression was dedicated to the memory of a ‘good friend and respected colleague’.

While the reason for his murder has never been established beyond several possibilities, there was no doubt who had been responsible. The following year Almond Nofemela and Dirk Coetzee blew the whistle on the police hit squad at Vlakplaas; and the Army’s dirty tricks outfit, the Civil Co-operation Bureau, was also unmasked. Indeed one of its operatives, Ferdie Barnard, was detained under the Internal Security Act. In spite of this, an inquest, the Harms Commission, and an internal military and police investigation, no one was charged until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was well underway. Barnard received a life sentence for Webster’s murder in 1999.

His death was received with outrage and an enormous sense of shock. Political activists had been targets for years, but now human rights advocates were in the assassins’ rifle sights. Even Vlakplaas hit man Eugene de Kock describes Webster’s death (with hindsight, of course) as an ‘appalling waste of human life, a major miscalculation’. Looking back it was actually a sign of the beginning of the end for apartheid in a number of ways. The funeral attracted an enormous crowd of 10 000, and there were hundreds at other protests, an indication of growing defiance under the banner of the mass democratic movement.

Like others, Webster knew well the risks of a being an active democrat in the South Africa of the 1980s, and paid the price. It would be appropriate to mark the 20th anniversary of his death by demonstrating the ongoing strength of the values he held dear. But, it must be said, some of his sacrifice has been betrayed.

Webster was a non-racialist, with a belief system now openly scorned in policy and practice by many he might have assumed to be his lifelong allies. Civil society, whose monitoring skills are now more needed than ever, surrendered in the 1990s to the bizarrely irresponsible idea that all activity could be subordinated beneath an ANC umbrella. And widespread physical abuse continues in police cells. Sadly, in terms of Webster’s credo, there are still just too many loose ends.

This article was first published in The Witness on 1 May 2009 and entitled ‘Death of a teacher’.

Further reading: Julie Frederikse, David Webster (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1998); D. Webster and M. Friedman, Suppressing Apartheid’s Opponents: Repression and the State of Emergency, June 1987−March 1989 (Johannesburg: Southern African Research Service and Ravan, 1989).