The life and work of Edward Webster

The life of Edward Webster, one of South Africa’s most distinguished sociologists, can be compared to a windmill—taking in the winds of change and turning them into a prodigious intellectual engagement.

Professor Edward Webster with his lifetime achievement award. Image credit Masechaba Kganyapa © Wits Vuvuzela.

It is exactly 50 years since C. Wright Mills (1959) penned his rendition of the sociological imagination as the interplay of biography and history, or, more actively, as transforming private troubles into public issues. Given the currency of Mills’s pithy formula, one might expect sociologists to be all the more conscious of the connection between their own biography and history, or between their own personal troubles and public issues. Yet sociologists can be most obtuse about their position in society, silent as to how their ideas are an expression of the world in which they live, and, thus, naïve about the limits and possibilities of changing that world. So often, it is as if their ideas soar above the context in which they are produced as if their creativity is a unique and ineffable quality divorced from their own social worlds. Sociologists are guilty of what Alvin Gouldner (1970) once called methodological dualism—that sociological analysis is for the sociologized, not for the sociologist, who miraculously escapes the social forces that pin down and constrain everyone else.

This asymmetry applies to C. Wright Mills himself, who harbored all manner of illusions about his self-defined isolation at the margins of academia, unshaped by the forces he described. Moreover, he thought that the analysis of the link between the social milieu in which people live and the social structure that shaped that milieu would spontaneously give rise to the transformation of personal troubles into public issues. In other words, he seemed to think that knowledge immaculately produces its own power effects. Although he did have political programs they were divorced from his sociological analysis. He did not investigate the way sociological imagination has to be connected to political imagination via organization, institutions, and social movements if it is to contribute to social transformation. In the final analysis, he shared with the academics he criticized the illusion of the knowledge effect, and thus like them justified his separation and insulation from society.

I wish to suggest that, because it is a dominated sociology, Southern sociology more easily recognizes its own place in society, which sets limits and creates possibilities for sociology’s participation in social transformation. Moreover, sociological imagination is no guarantee of social transformation, the turning of personal troubles into public issues, as Mills implies, but this requires in addition a political imagination, forged through collective and collaborative practices with groups, organizations, and movements beyond the academy. The expansion of Southern sociology depends on the dialectic of political and sociological imagination.

I will make this argument through the interrogation of the life and work of Edward Webster, one of South Africa’s most distinguished sociologists. He is a perpetual motion machine—a windmill. A typical day in the life of Edward Webster might start out with a run on the golf course, interrupted by a conversation with local workers, then a debate on the radio with the head of the trade union federation, moving on to a meeting of SWOP (Sociology of Work Unit that he founded in 1983), and then to a lecture to South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists, who are taking the two-week course at the university, to the completion of a scholarly article, to a meeting with National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) who want him to research workplace control. Perhaps during the day, he will find some time to visit with his grandsons. He gets home late, energized by the day’s activities, to be cooled out and debriefed by his wife, the renowned biographer and popular historian Luli Callinicos.

What marks Webster’s sociological practice is not just hyper-activity, but the intimate connection between his academic and his public lives: the one inseparable from the other. The Webster windmill takes in the winds of change—social, political, and economic winds—and turns them into a prodigious intellectual engagement. As the winds intensify the windmill accelerates, generating ever higher voltage sociology. Sparks fly, igniting the political will as well as the sociological imagination of all those around him, and thus feeding more energy into the windmill. We are not here talking so much about the personal career of Eddie Webster as the way his life comes to be embedded in movements and organizations. While such engagement is by no means confined to the Global South, nonetheless the turbulence of social transformation creates a fluidity between the university and the wider society—rarely observed in the North—encouraging deep involvement, often at great personal risk.


Any windmill is only as strong as its foundations. The Webster windmill is founded on a moral vision that propels his engagements, early examples of which can be found in his student years at Rhodes, 1961–1965. In a reflection entitled, “Rebels with a Cause of Their Own,” Webster writes about the way he discovered Marxism in the writings of Christopher Hill and of how he disappointed his “opinionated and demanding” teacher, Winnie Maxwell, who would tell him, “Laddy, history is not a railroad and you should beware of simple answers to complex and individual events. This is not a sociology class and we are not socialists.” But it was not Marxism that impelled his moral vision, or at least that would come only later, but the patent injustice of apartheid. One of his earliest protests occurred when he was president of the Rhodes Student Representative Council (SRC)—the demand to lift the ban that prevented Africans from watching university rugby. As he writes, in a self-critical vein, “We were protesting on behalf of black supporters to watch our rugby not for non-racial rugby teams or the right of all players to participate in the same league.”

He was sowing the seeds of a life of protest not just on behalf of but also in collaboration with the African working class. That deepening engagement, however, was rarely revolutionary in intent but it took the form, as he puts it, of radical reform. In those early years, and indeed throughout his life, he maintained a critical distance from the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and any sort of vanguardism, but that did not mean he did not engage with them. He always believed in starting from actually existing institutions and actually mobilized movements, and for Webster these tended to revolve around labor unions and labor movements. He would take their issues as a point of departure if not a point of conclusion.

No windmill can withstand gale-force winds without a strong foundation—in this case, an abiding moral vision combined with radical reform—but it also needs a powerful fulcrum for its rotating blades. That fulcrum did not arrive ready-made but was built over time and would eventually in 1983 become the Sociology of Work Programme (SWOP), housed in the University of Witwatersrand. After a stint at Unilever and then teaching history in high school, especially King David’s High School, Webster was ready to return to academic studies but now with a new political mission. He was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1969 to study for an MA in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) where he imbibed the fashionable Marxism of the time, influenced by among others Steven Lukes, before taking off for York University where he began to develop a dissertation on the so-called Durban riots of 1949—a dissertation that was intended to bring together Marxism and the pluralist perspectives of M. G. Smith, Pierre van den Berghe, and Leo Kuper. It was in Yorkshire that Webster had his first engagement with adult education, which anticipated his future connection to worker education.

When Lawrence Schlemmer offered him a position at the University of Natal (Durban), it was natural he would take it and return to South Africa. He arrived in February 1973, just after the Durban strikes which had absorbed the attention of his colleagues, but especially Richard Turner, a young philosopher himself who recently returned from the Sorbonne with New Left thinking and a commitment to participatory democracy. At that time Turner was under house arrest, but nonetheless, the two became close friends and collaborators. Under the influence of Turner and the changing tide of events, Webster turned from his interest in the Durban riots to the insurgent African working class. The seeds of SWOP were born in Turner’s vision of an Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) that would be devoted to advancing the working class movement through workers’ education, labor research, and a labor journal. The IIE was founded in Durban, but Webster would leave for the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1976, where he would continue the project that would eventually become SWOP. Turner himself was assassinated by the Security Police in 1978, but his ideas lived on in Webster’s political vision, even into post-apartheid South Africa.

SWOP was Webster’s brainchild, and it grew into his “Modern Prince,” advancing the interests of the working class, but from within the relatively protected arena of the university. When formally established in 1983, it already came with its four arms in embryo. The first arm is an expanding research agenda that responded to changing political winds; the second arm is a public engagement, bringing research findings into the public arena for discussion and debate; the third arm is policy work—or, for reasons that will become clear, what I will call principled intervention—for trade unions, and, in the post-apartheid era, for government agencies and corporations; the fourth arm is institution building within the university, most notably SWOP and the department of sociology,—but he also began to redefine the meaning of sociology beyond the university.

At the core of this re-envisioning of sociology lies the interconnectedness and inseparability of the four blades—institution building, principled intervention, expanding research program, as well as public engagement—joined together in SWOP. They whirl around together at speeds determined by the winds of change. Indeed, when the winds are gale force it is impossible to get close to the Webster windmill without being drawn into its vortex, and the participants in SWOP have to hang on for dear life. When a political storm rages, it is hard work to make sure none of the blades break off. As we explore these blades one by one it will become apparent just how interconnected they are. Moreover, their interconnectedness constitutes the political imagination—an interconnectedness rarely found in the North with its entrenched division of sociological labor.

Expanding research program

We start with Webster’s expanding research agenda, ever sensitive to the issues thrown up by engagements with the world beyond. It began, however, with the more remote project of the so-called Durban riots of 1949 that was aimed at Indian commerce. Webster’s interpretation developed under the influence of both Marxist and pluralist understandings of South Africa. He argued that Indians’ access to land ownership, their control of transportation, their facility with English, as well as their ease of movement, gave them significant advantages over the emergent African petty bourgeoisie in controlling commerce and services. Through the eyes of Africans, especially the African petty bourgeoisie, Indians were perpetrators of a secondary colonization, and it was this that lay behind the Durban riots. The focus of the proposed research was the racial divide within the petty bourgeoisie based on “differential incorporation” into the apartheid order. The project was formulated in England, but Webster was deterred from pursuing this topic when he arrived in Durban in 1973. Instead, he turned his gaze on the African working class.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the African working class advanced toward a class for itself, joining with community organizations and the UDF to become ever more militant both at work and in the community. Webster was never far from these struggles campaigning for the recognition of trade unions. Once he arrived at Wits he turned to write his dissertation, now on the topic of working class formation. Influenced by the rising interest in labor process theory, that is the transformation of work with the development of capitalism, generated by the publication of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), Webster took advantage of the minutes of the meetings of the molders’ union that had been deposited in the Wits archives. Originally a craft union for whites only, its monopoly of skill was retained in the face of mechanization by appeal to job reservation. Racial solidarity successfully held up deskilling until after the Second World War, when slowly jobs were diluted and Africans were deployed as semi-skilled operatives. As the induction of semi-skilled Africans accelerated, the craft union dissipated, and in its place there arose an industrial union, explicitly recognized as such when the Wiehahn Commission established the right of Africans to form trade unions. The last part of the dissertation reflects on the burgeoning social movement unionism that united community and workplace struggles against apartheid.

Cast in a Racial Mould (1985) emerged from Webster’s dissertation. It made several significant contributions, but let me mention two. First, it showed how the labor movement was shaped by the transformation of work. In the labor process literature, with the partial exception of Richard Edwards’s Contested Terrain (1979), there was little that linked the labor process to labor movement over the long durée. Equally in the South African literature, there were analyses of working-class struggles, such as the classic Class and Colour in South Africa by Jack and Ray Simons (1968), but these were not traced back to the transformation of work. Second, whereas the labor process literature has been inundated with critical commentary from feminists who insisted on the importance of gender in the regulation and transformation of the labor process, there has been very little analysis of the impact of racial orders on the labor process. Cast in a Racial Mould, therefore, remains a classic in these two respects, reflecting a century of capitalist development in South Africa, seen through the lens of the emerging labor movement in the decade after the Durban strikes.

Absorbed in the labor struggles against apartheid, Webster would elaborate on different aspects of Cast in a Racial Mould. We would have to wait for the end of the apartheid for the next phase of his research agenda, which would dwell on the democratic transition, dubbed the double transition, interconnecting democratization, and economic class compromise. With Glenn Adler in 1995, he would take on board the literature on the Latin American transition to democracy, which focused on pact-making among elites to the exclusion of popular participation. In South Africa, at least, the legacy of a strong labor movement would provide the opening for a different path of development. As the 1990s wore on Webster became less optimistic about the transition, but he never lost sight of economic development through redistribution and the creation of the institutions of class compromise. His research agenda shifted to the effects of a market-driven economic policy that involved privatization and dismantling protections for labor. Working with Bridget Kenny, Sarah Mosoetsa, Karl von Holdt, and others, Webster would refocus his research on the informalization of the economy, those expanding sectors of the economy that were beyond the reach of trade unions, and from there, it was a short step to the examination of survival strategies of households.

This led to a fourth phase of his research trajectory—the move into comparative studies. If Braverman (1974) and Richard Edwards (1979) had shaped his approach to the labor process and its connection to the labor movement, and if pact theory and class compromise had framed his analysis of transition, it would be Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944) that provided the basis for teasing out the specificity of South Africa’s response to neoliberalism. Problematizing Polanyi’s countermovement of society against the market he, Rob Lambert, and Andries Bezuidenhout compared the responses to neoliberalism in South Africa, South Korea, and Australia by focusing on community responses to the restructuring of the white goods industry. Grounding Globalization (2008) studied on-the-ground responses to global patterns of marketization, responses that ranged from informalization to building an international labor movement.

Each phase in the expanding research program was a quite specific response to the immediate political and economic context of South Africa, but it also drew on different strands of theory being developed in the UK or the US. The dynamism of this localization of theory from the North came less from the pursuit of its internal contradictions and more from the external anomalies, and issues thrown up by the context within which he worked. If in the North we have the luxury of developing a research program, in which its empirical belts are driven primarily by an internal logic, and only secondarily by the world beyond, the appeal of the Southern windmill is the way it develops a research agenda, primarily responsive to emergent public and policy issues. That is why it is impossible to disconnect SWOP’s blade of theory from the blades of public engagement, policy intervention, and institution building. That is how the sociological imagination can quickly become a political imagination.

Public engagement

It is difficult to grasp the scope and intensity of Webster’s public engagement, which ranged from debates in the media (television, radio, newspapers) to worker education and the famous SWOP breakfasts. But public engagement can be a life-and-death matter as Webster would learn very soon after he returned to South Africa. In 1973 Charles Nupen, president of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), invited Webster to give a paper to a student seminar on the implications of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) for the white left. Webster (1974) distinguishes three responses of whites: the uncomprehending traditional liberal who responds defensively, reiterating commitment to equality and non-racialism, arguing for slow assimilation; the despairing liberal who accepts collective white guilt for racism, seeing no way out and so either “withdraws from the country or joins Anglo America”; and the committed radical who adopts a more critical stance toward Black Consciousness, carving out a space for political activism.

While recognizing the importance of Black Consciousness and the cultural recuperation that lies behind it, Webster, standing as a committed radical, points to the potential reemergence of a black bourgeoisie that advances its own class interests in the name of race. But his most challenging intervention was to call on whites to examine how their institutions are implicated in the reproduction of racism, and to make white society “more receptive to the kind of change that the oppressed will force upon it.”  Webster drew on black radical thought from the Black Panthers in the US to Steve Biko and BCM, on debates about African socialism and neocolonialism in independent Africa, but also derivatively on Frantz Fanon. He directed his concerns at white South Africans and argued that they had to change to meet the challenge of the rising tide of struggles against apartheid. This was as forthright and radical a statement Webster would ever make and, indeed, it attracted the attention of the Security Branch, leading to his arrest two years later, at the end of 1975, under the Suppression of Communism Act.

Webster moved to the University of Witwatersrand in 1976, the year of his trial. George Bizos, one of the defense attorneys, called it the trial of the NUSAS Five, since except for Webster the accused were all NUSAS leaders. Among other things they were accused of calling for the release of political prisoners, fighting for the recognition of African trade unions, and advocating the violent transformation of society. Webster defended himself with a lecture on the virtues of institutionalizing industrial conflict by establishing African trade unions. Rather than stimulate violence trade unions would minimize violence. “Trade unions,” he said, “were not the institutions that conservatives fear and that revolutionaries hope for.” Nonetheless, even if trade unions were not a weapon of revolution, this view—stemming from the elementary functionalist theory of conflict—had radical implications simply because Africans were not allowed to form them.

In the United States, the same theory was being branded conservative, precisely because it reproduced the social order, absorbing, channeling, and taming class conflict. Indeed, in the US sociologists had developed social movement theory to valorize the transformative potential of non-institutionalized conflict in civil society—the civil rights movement, the student movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement. They wrote off the labor movement precisely because it was institutionalized. When confronted with violence in South Africa, however, Webster would always underline the importance of recognizing actors and organizing conflict.

The accused were found not guilty, but the magistrate, commenting on the speeches Webster made, was compelled to declare Webster “an arrogant young man,” and in response, his father called out, “And that’s no crime!” At the end of the trial, Webster had a telling exchange with the head of Security Police, Colonel Johan Coetzee, himself a trained and sophisticated political scientist. Webster approached Coetzee, “Well, I’ve been found not guilty.” to which Coetzee responded, “Yes, but you are not innocent.” And, of course, he was right. Webster’s address to the NUSAS seminar was far from innocent. It was a radical statement for reform. The fact that the state was so handsomely defeated in the trial showed that charges against intellectuals would not stick in South Africa’s law courts with its independent judiciary. If it wanted to quash the spread of ideas hostile to apartheid, then the state would have to assassinate their authors. This is precisely what happened to Rick Turner, David Webster, and Ruth First, and indeed there were also attempts on Edward Webster’s life.

Webster may have been found not guilty, but, as Colonel Coetzee intimated, he was a marked man. A lesser man would have withdrawn from public engagement, but not Webster. Nonetheless, he had to be more circumspect. As we will see he did turn inward, building sociology within the university, but he also continued his outward orientation with the South African Labour Bulletin and workers’ education. The SALB was founded by Turner and Webster among others in Durban in 1974, and it continues to this day. Webster was on the board for 27 years. Widely read in the labor movement, it was host to some of its most important debates. Especially noteworthy was the intense debate over union registration. After the Wiehahn Commission had proposed recognition of African unions there ensued a major debate among unionists as to whether it was better to boycott the new legislation, resisting co-optation by the state, or to register in order to exploit spaces that opened up within the state. Alec Erwin would pose the dilemma in these terms: Should one use the state to undermine capital or attack capitalism to undermine the state? Together with the editors of the SALB Webster would come down in favor of registration, another case of hoped-for radical reform. Over the years every major issue affecting the labor movement has been debated in the pages of the SALB.

The other prong inherited from Turner’s brainchild, the Institute of Industrial Education, was worker education. The IIE had introduced a diploma course in Durban for which they produced four books that presented a working-class perspective on the economy, on society, on the factory, and on organization. The books were translated into Zulu and played a pivotal role in the project of worker education that would bring together incipient unionists, and build a democratic base for unionism within the factories.

After he arrived at Wits Webster and his colleague, the historian Phil Bonner, developed courses in worker education for the new leadership of the trade union movement. Initially, the course was held on campus, but later, the Wits administration banned worker education as political and therefore in violation of the university’s statutes. Despite protests, Webster was forced to take worker education off campus. The university did not want to be seen as harboring forces for social upheaval, especially given its close links with business. With the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985, worker education was taken away from Webster and his colleagues, but SWOP would develop other forums of public education. More recently, for example, it has begun annual courses for journalists from the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1992 it started monthly SWOP breakfasts at which SWOP researchers would present their findings and analysis to interested bodies in the community—trade unions, businesses, educators, politicians, journalists, and civil servants. This has been one of SWOP’s most successful, long-standing, and innovative initiatives—a prototype of public sociology in which the researcher and researched meet in public discussion. The researcher reports back to those who sponsored the research as well as to those who were the object of research, and, in the case of work in progress, rethinking its direction. It is much more than a conversation among those immediately involved in research, but involves developing new concepts, and new understandings of public issues that are of broad interest. There is a regular core audience of some 40 people who always appear, and then in addition are those attracted to a particular topic. The SWOP breakfasts serve multiple functions, generating public debate but also building a network of institutions upon which SWOP can draw in pursuing further research.

What we see, then, over time is the movement from individual initiative to the cautious institutionalization of public sociology. What is institutionalized, however, is not the recognition of public sociology as a criterion of academic promotion, not incentivizing public sociology within a professional career but establishing the means and resources to communicate sociology to broader audiences regularly, contributing to a public sphere of dialogue. These outward-looking projects are rooted in a research agenda that SWOP manages to translate into the language and concerns of a variety of interested parties whose responses feed back into the research agenda. This organic public sociology is very different from traditional public sociology in which the sociologist broadcasts his or her ideas via books, op-ed pieces, interviews, and the like, although of course the former does not preclude the latter.

Above all, public sociology in the South can be a dangerous enterprise that puts not just careers but also lives at risk. Even though Webster steered clear of the ANC and the SACP—although he was a supporter of the first union federation, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU)—still he like others was deemed an enemy of the state, all the more dangerous because his critical independence proved unassailable in a court of law. In political regimes hostile to free speech and open debate, public sociology, especially the organic variety, can be a potent political force but one that comes at an enormous cost. Democratization has brought greater freedom for public sociology but also limited its political significance. With the evisceration of civil society and the corporatization of the university, public sociology is driven in the direction of policy intervention, thereby creating a host of new dilemmas.

Principled intervention

The distinction between policy and public sociology is often difficult to draw. If public sociology aims at broadening public dialogue, policy intervention aims at a particular client—indeed, it is often in service of a particular client, accepting parameters defined by the client. If the danger of public sociology lay in alienating the apartheid state that sought to control the limits of public dialogue, the challenge of policy research is to avoid a compromising relationship with the client who sponsors the research. Webster has always been careful to avoid being captured by the clients for whom he undertakes research, retaining the autonomy necessary to adopt a critical stance toward the client, whether it be a union, party, or corporation. I call this principled intervention. The following cases, just a few of the many policy projects undertaken by SWOP, illustrate its achievements and dilemmas.

SWOP was originally founded as a policy unit, when a group of engineers, known as the Technical Advice Group (TAG) approached Webster in 1983, hoping to deploy their skills and knowledge for progressive ends. This group included people who would become major players in the struggles around work and trade unions—Jean Leger, Judy Maller, Freddy Sitas, and Yunus Ballim. As Webster completed his dissertation on the molders, he developed a concern for respiratory diseases associated with foundry work. One of the members of TAG—Freddy Sitas, a student of medicine—followed this up and later published an analysis of the link in 1989. Jean Leger would collaborate with Webster on another project concerned with occupational health—mine accidents—which had always been a thorn in the side of mining companies. Leger’s research would take several years, and it was done with the support of the new National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In the end, he showed how work organization, in particular racial despotism, was at the heart of the high number of fatalities. White miners paid on an incentive bonus scheme would drive their African subordinates to work in the most unsafe of conditions.

The report was discussed in 1985 at a most dramatic public event organized by the then-emerging SWOP. Webster invited both NUM and the Chamber of Mines to discuss the report on the Wits Campus. Workers came on foot and managers by helicopter. Webster chaired the meeting of the two sides of the industry, pointing out that the university had long supported the mining industry concerning matters of engineering, but it should also be concerned with the livelihood of African labor. A heated debate ensued in which the representatives of the companies questioned the findings by attacking the methodology used in social research—snowball sampling. Webster and his colleagues were able to roll out experts in social science methodology that would justify the method, putting the Chamber of Mines on the defensive.

This intervention on behalf of and commissioned by NUM was relatively successful. In 1986, NUM put out a popular version of the Leger report under the title “A Thousand Ways to Die: The Struggle for Safety in Gold Mines” and the mining companies modified their operations underground. But the next project showed just how delicate the relationship between sociologist and favored client can become. It was an investigation initiated by Webster and his colleagues, with the tacit approval of the local branch of NUM, on the causes of HIV/AIDS among mineworkers. The research, conducted in 1988, when there was still silence around HIV/AIDs even as it was already taking so many lives in South Africa, pointed to the system of migrant labor as the ultimate source of the problem. Separated from their wives in the homelands, African miners took on multiple partners—women desperate for income—during their stints in the mines, spreading HIV at alarming rates. In this case, the NUM refused permission to publish the research since, from NUM’s point of view, it pathologized the sexual behavior of Africans, feeding the long history of racist views of Africans as uncivilized, even though the ultimate culprit was seen to be the mining industry’s system of migrant labor. SWOP was caught in a bind as NUM was trying to censor its research, but eventually, a compromise was reached and the paper written by the researchers—Karen Jochelson, Monyaola Mothibeli, and Leger—was published in a foreign journal, the International Journal of Health Services in 1991.

The clients of SWOP have changed in the post-apartheid period. SWOP now undertakes membership surveys for COSATU and the ANC. It undertook commissioned research for the mining companies such as a study of occupational cultures in deep-level mining, and then made proposals for training miners who would work in such conditions. But SWOP was also asked to advise government agencies. In 2007 the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) asked Webster and Sakhela Buhlungu to assess the increasing violence in and around industrial plants. The two sociologists first asked their union partners whether to accept the invitation. With union encouragement, Webster and Buhlungu made a presentation to the NIA on the importance of having strong unions to channel conflict if violence was to be avoided. This was a familiar argument that Webster had made on numerous occasions, not least as an expert witness in the case of workers indicted for killing scabs. The NIA was so pleased with SWOP’s presentation that it would then request their assistance in dealing with specific strikes. Here Webster drew the line, turning down substantial payment in order to preserve the integrity of SWOP—not to be captured by any agency, but particularly one that was hostile to labor.

One might say that Webster’s policy intervention was governed by the principle of never crossing a metaphorical picket line—that is to say, he insisted on maintaining autonomy in the face of client pressure to come over to its side. This is as true for labor as it is for capital. Thus, he can sit on the boards of the Chris Hani Institute, a research arm of the South African Communist Party, as well as of the Southern African Development Bank. The picket line is never clear. It is an imaginary line that Webster continually draws and redraws as he is sucked onto different terrains of conflict and as the overall political context changes. Like public dialogue, principled intervention translates personal troubles into public issues, but he always tries to ensure that the link does not backfire and that it does not exacerbate the personal troubles of those whose cause he seeks to defend.

Institution building

At every point the contrast with Mills is stark, but none more stark than in Webster’s relation to the university. Mills constituted himself as a lone martyr at the fringes of the academy. He criticized those who would get their hands dirty in policy research or in anything like organic public sociology. He spoke to his mass society from the rafters of society, condemning its dominant institutions, not least the university. He stood at the fringes of an elite academic world, mocking those who ran it, not taking his teaching especially seriously. How different is Webster’s engagement with the world, always trying to build and rebuild institutions that would carry forward his ideas, his research, and his teaching.

Before the NUSAS trial in 1976, Webster had been following Turner’s ideas for the Institute for Industrial Education, embracing research into working-class culture that would shed light on the Durban strikes, developing worker education, and creating a journal that would address the interests of the emergent African trade unions. The arrest and then the trial taught Webster much about the thinking of the police and security forces and the possibilities of fighting the state on the terrain of law. But he was now a marked man and had to be more cautious in his political engagement. So after the trial Webster turned to the university that had supported him throughout the trial by continuing his employment on the grounds that he was innocent until proven guilty.

Webster set about changing the curriculum in the sociology department at Wits. He transformed the existing course in industrial sociology by drawing on critical theory, largely Marxist theory. Building on that success he introduced an honors program in industrial sociology which attracted some of the best and brightest students, including such figures as Karl von Holdt, Kate Philips, Jane Barrett, Avril Joffe, and Darlene Miller, all committed to a critical engagement with South African society. Many of these students would go on to play a major role in the labor movement but also transform sociology in a Marxist direction with a focus on labor.

This was, of course, a period of escalating protest in industry but also in the townships in the wake of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The Federation of South African Trade Unions was launched in 1979  after the Wiehahn Commission had endorsed African trade unions, and it was then that Webster and his colleagues Phil Bonner, Halton Cheadle, and Duncan Innes introduced their three-week courses for trade union leadership. As Webster was slowly transforming the Wits sociology department he was also working on his dissertation on the history of the molders. As already recounted SWOP would later develop out of a group of progressive Wits scientists and engineers (TAG) who had come to Webster in search of a social scientist who might help them with their research.

SWOP was very different from the other group that had emerged at the end of the 1970s—the Wits History Workshop—that was intent on forging a history of South Africa from below. It championed rank-and-file workers and the marginalized, but many of its key members were less committed to active engagement with society, intent on protecting the autonomy of academic pursuits, but also suspicious of organizations such as trade unions as leading to the bureaucratization of social movements. Despite overlapping membership, the tension between these two academically rooted organizations became palpable in the 1980s, especially as SWOP became immersed in quite concrete and controversial projects, such as the study of mine accidents and HIV/AIDS.

Webster became chair of the sociology department from 1988 until 1994. As he tells the story, he had a three-fold agenda: staff development, especially young faculty; curriculum changes, in particular, the creation of an MA program; and building a common vision in what was a deeply divided department. This was a period in which the department expanded and moved left. It was perhaps one of the most vital periods in the department’s history, reflecting its engagement in the unfolding transformation of society. It was also a period in which Webster became more active in the Association of Sociologists of Southern Africa (ASSA), a multi-racial organization that had split off from the white sociological association (SASOV). Webster would become president of ASSA between 1983 and 1985 and enlarged its size by giving it new energy and direction. In the wider society, this was a period of virtual civil war, signaled on the one side, by the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and COSATU in 1985 and, on the other side, by the declaration of a state of emergency with all manner of repressive counter-moves from the apartheid state. It was in this climate that Webster sought to make ASSA reflective of the growing engagement of sociologists by creating working groups that captured the public issues of the time—education, labor, gender, urban, militarization, and the state. He brought in figures from other disciplines but also leaders from the labor movement and UDF to give sociology a sense of its public mission. It was under his reign that ASSA launched its own journal.

The transition brought a new set of problems in some ways more challenging than the struggles against apartheid. How does one transform the university from a bastion of white privilege to a more open and inclusive institution that would cater to new generations of African students? SWOP turned to an ambitious internship program that would train young black South Africans in the sociology of work and employment relations, attaching them to research projects on the transition. Here it should be said that Webster’s teaching style is of a piece with his public sociology, constituting students as a public that comes to the university with its own lived experience, a lived experience he engages, elaborates, and transforms. He thinks of his students as themselves teachers, returning to society endowed with new imaginations and a model of how to communicate them to others. As the festschrift dedicated to Webster-the-teacher underlines, he has a rare ability to draw students into a critical understanding of the worlds from which they come, seamlessly knitting together sociological and political imaginations.

In training Africans his project, of course, was impelled by the desire to transform the racial despotism inherited from apartheid. This turned out to be a far greater challenge than even he imagined. In many contexts the color bar simply floated up, leaving racial patterns intact. Ironically, the university seemed the most intractable to change. Webster turned his sociology onto his own workplace—the chalk face as he called it—just as he had turned it on to the apartheid workplaces of industry. He saw how the University of Witwatersrand could not reform itself easily, facing as it did the legacy of an entrenched white oligarchy. At the end of the 1990s, the university system of South Africa as a whole underwent change through amalgamations that were intended to dissolve the divide between the historically black and historically white institutions. Within the university there was a move to absorb the old disciplinary departments into schools—that is, interdisciplinary units. Webster viewed this as a destructive restructuring—eroding two decades devoted to building the sociology department. The restructuring justified insurgent managerialism within the university, building up the ranks of professional and highly paid-administrators.

That was at one end of the university. At the other end there had begun a process of outsourcing low-paid service jobs, replacing workers with employment guarantees (and even access to free university education for their children) with contract workers employed by labor brokers. When the outsourcing plans were revealed, members of SWOP organized public support for the displaced workers, much to the chagrin of the Vice-Chancellor at the time, Colin Bundy, who called Webster into his office to tell him to discipline his troops. Webster refused. Here in his own backyard, he could observe the very processes of informalization that SWOP had been studying in the wider economy. Not only was the wave of neoliberalism flooding back into the university but at the chalk face racial dynamics had an obduracy of their own.

No matter what the frustration and aggravation, the Webster windmill kept on revolving. The work of SWOP and of Webster in particular took a global turn. As early as 1994 Webster had attended the embryonic Research Committee on Labour Movements (RC44) of the International Sociological Association (ISA), and by 1998 he was elected to become its secretary, and in 2002 he became its president. Once again he brought new energy and direction to this fledgling group, building global relations not only among labor sociologists but also between labor sociologists and labor movements, showcasing his own unit, SWOP, but also other units in other parts of the world in which academics had developed partnerships with labor movements. It was at this time that he re-established relations with South African Rob Lambert, now teaching in Australia, who had been building the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR). Together they injected RC44 with a new vitality and global vision that would crystallize in their collaborative book Grounding Globalization: Labour In the Age of Insecurity (2008) which won the book award from the Labor Section of the American Sociological Association in 2009, marking the influence of SWOP on Northern sociology.

Consolidating this global engagement at the local level is Webster’s involvement in Global Labour University (GLU), an ILO project that connects universities in Germany (University of Kassel), India (Tata Institute, Mumbai), South Africa (Wits) and Brazil (State University of Campinas). Trade unions send officials from all over Africa to study at Wits, under the direction of SWOP, for a year and to receive an MA diploma or degree in labor studies and development. This created its own dilemmas, and Webster was again caught straddling the exigencies of the life of the union official on the one side and the demands of an academic curriculum on the other.

Throughout his career, the university has been the base of his principled interventions, public engagement, and research programs. Without this fourth arm, the windmill would be uncoordinated and its energy would flag. He has only been able to build SWOP as the fulcrum of his activities because it is grounded in the relatively protected environment of the academy. It is the relative autonomy of the academy that has allowed him to sustain intellectual critique alongside close collaborations and intense engagements with groups, organizations, and movements outside the university. The coordinated and interdependent blades of Webster’s windmill cut deeply, bringing sociological imagination and political engagement into close connection—the hallmark of the best of Southern sociology.

For a Southern sociology?

The metaphor of the windmill captures what is distinctive about Webster’s sociology but is there something distinctively South African or Southern about his engagement, his theorizing? Can one make any general claims about South Africa or the South that distinguishes their sociology from the one found in the North? To be sure one can characterize Northern sociology as dominated by a division of labor in which sociologists are first and foremost defined by their professional role, barricading themselves within the university, only rarely venturing forth. If they pursue public or policy sociology it is often on the side and subordinated to professional sociology. Their research programs tend to follow an internal logic impervious to the winds beyond, even those beating down on the university. With the windmill, by contrast, the winds become the source of power, converted by the four blades, each revolving with the other, each inseparably connected to the other. Rather than the division of labor, SWOP works with flexible specialization, just-in-time adaptation to the pressures of the moment, or what Sizwe Phakathi called “planisa”—the spontaneous planning of underground workers, responding to the exigencies of deep-level mining. Yet we can find examples of similar engagements in the North, ranging, for example, from Huw Beynon’s organization of the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University to Ruth Milkman’s work as head of the University of California’s Institute for Labor and Employment to Ramon Flecha’s  Centre for Research in Theories and Practices that Overcome Inequalities (CREA) in Barcelona. Are these, however, more the exception than the rule, an oasis of activity in a desert of professionalism?

Even if we grant a certain distinctiveness to the North can we make sweeping claims about the South? Certainly, many countries of the South are either so poor or so small that the university is overrun by political demands and pressures that make such projects as SWOP untenable. Indeed, that is true of many universities in South Africa. In so many Southern universities faculty are living from hand to mouth, often employed in several jobs to make ends meet. This, of course, is the other side of the Southern windmill, where foundations and fulcrum are too weak to withstand the political and economic storms, too stretched to sustain any coherence. Moreover, in our era of marketization, Southern research units are more likely to develop outside the university, siphoning off the best talent from the university, separating teaching from research, responding to ephemeral demands of well-resourced clients, often sponsored by international agencies with their own agendas. SWOP, too, has had difficulty reproducing itself in the neoliberal governmentality of post-apartheid South Africa—a climate in which independent political imagination is harder to sustain, in which commitments are more ephemeral and visions more limited. Difficult though it is, only in dynamic developing countries, such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, can the best universities provide the resources and protect academic autonomy to make windmills feasible.

But what about the sociology itself—simultaneously the ingredient and product of the windmill? Here it is worth distinguishing between “Sociology in the South,” “Sociology of the South” and “Sociology for the South.” Sociology in the South is simply Northern sociology, presented as a universal sociology, transferred to the South. Like McDonald’s this is a mere replica, usually a poor replica of the sociology of the North, using its textbooks, its concepts, and its theories as though they applied directly to the South. Modernization theory was especially well adapted to this transplantation as the gap between theory and reality could be explained away as a mark of inevitable backwardness or the result of a stalled evolutionary process. Sad to say much sociology taught in the South is of this character.

Precisely because of its ubiquity, this Sociology in the South has spawned indigenous or alternative sociologies, a nativist sociology against the North. The most recent version is Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which starts by dismissing canonical Northern sociology as an arbitrary and artificial construct—whether this be the classical theory of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim or the contemporary theory of Coleman, Bourdieu, and Giddens—that seeks to universalize and impose on the rest of the world what is quite particular and peculiar. Against a reductionist homogenization of “Northern theory” Connell presents us with an array of forgotten or silenced theorists from the South — Africa, Latin America, India, Middle East, and Asia. Sol Plaatje, for example, is the representative from South Africa, but Connell cannot tell us what it is about his writing that was not absorbed and elaborated in the enormous wealth of South African historiography. What purpose would be served by returning to Plaatje?

Apart from having lived in the South, it is not clear what makes these thinkers “Southern,” since many were trained and spent much time in the North; or what makes their thinking “sociological,” since many are more clearly philosophers, economists, historians. Even more problematic, Connell decontextualizes their thinking so that there is no reason to believe that they can become part of any grounded sociological engagement with the realities of the South, whatever those realities might be. The importance of Southern Theory is to reiterate the critique of Sociology in the South—a diluted, textbook version of Northern sociology—but Southern Theory is not yet Sociology of the South.

Very different from Connell, Webster’s engagement with Northern theory has developed a Sociology of the South. Thus, he has argued that US sociology presents itself as a false universal, which he particularizes in two ways. First, he deploys Northern theory in the South to reveal its very different significations. What is conservative in one place may be radical in another. Thus, taking the functionalist theory of conflict and the idea that trade unions manage dissent and limit violence, Webster challenged the anti-unionism of apartheid South Africa, and indeed of post-apartheid South Africa. Second, he has taken Northern theories and shown that they are false when applied to South Africa. Thus, his critique of transition theory pointed to the limitations of the theory of pacts that political scientists had applied to Latin American transitions to democracy and instead underlined the importance of class struggle and class compromise.

But Webster has done much more than particularize Northern theory. He and his colleagues developed new theories of the relation between work organization and working-class mobilization. The concept of social movement unionism was debated in South Africa long before it was reinvented in the United States. Webster and his colleagues advanced novel theories of the double and then the triple transition, the links between formal and informal economies as specific responses to globalization. More than that, as I have been at pains to underline, they have developed a methodology of research and theorizing that is not simply grounded in but deeply engaged with the local.

This is, indeed, Sociology of the South but it is not yet Sociology for the South. Particularizing and even expanding Northern theory is not the end of the road, but a necessary step in the development of Sociology for the South—a sociology which is not content with a particular sociology of the South, but makes its own move toward universality. It is a theory that binds the South to an emergent counter-hegemony that presents the interests of the South as the interests of all. We have examples of this in the broad appeal of dependency theory that emerged from Latin America or subaltern studies that originated in India, each of which incorporated a theory of the North, but from the standpoint of the South. Here, too, Webster and his colleagues have innovated. In its investigation of the specific responses to marketization in different countries, Grounding Globalization takes a major step toward theorizing the place of the South within a world order dominated by the North, addressing the North as well as the South. Webster, Lambert, and Bezuidenhout’s Polanyian framework, bringing together market fundamentalism, fictitious commodities, and counter-movement through historical and cross-national comparisons, provides the basis of a sociology for the South—a sociology that selectively embraces theories from all regions of the world, that dissolves the blunt reifications of North and South, a sociology that can excite sociologists from Europe and North America as well as from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but a sociology that never forgets its political origins and its political context.

Of course, it’s never easy and there are downsides to the Southern windmill. It is so continually in motion that it is difficult to find time to consolidate insights and deepen partial theories into something of more general applicability. The wind blows eternally, and the blades turn relentlessly. Research is driven frenetically from topic to topic. The foundations of Webster’s political imagination reside in his sustained collaboration with students, colleagues, and subjects of research—can such collaboration, even with Northern theorists, offset the continual pressures to meet the turbulence of the moment? Indeed, Latin American sociologists, no less embedded in society than their South African colleagues, were able to forge all sorts of synergies with the action sociology pioneered by Alain Touraine and his Parisian team.

Across the planet, a destructive combination of marketization and governmentality is transforming the university—corporatizing its management, auditing its output, and commodifying its knowledge. We are searching the world over for models of how to contest the often surreptitious onslaught against the academy. SWOP is one such model. It emerged under the exigencies of the South, but it has universal relevance. It provides a vision that defends the integrity of the university, not as a retreat into the ivory tower but as an advance into the trenches of civil society, that sees the sociological imagination and political engagement not as antagonists but as partners. The life and work of Edward Webster, institutionalized in SWOP, must command the attention of us all.

Further Reading