09 December 2015

A 70th birthday tribute to David Webster

On 1 May 1989 David Webster was gunned down by apartheid state assassin Ferdi Barnard outside his home in Troyeville, Johannesburg which he shared with his partner Maggie Friedman. The murder of the acclaimed social anthropologist and political activist sent shockwaves through a country only nine months away from the release of Nelson Mandela.

David Webster addressing a gathering on National Detainees Day, 1987. Photographer: Eric Miller. Archived as SAHA collection AL2547_16.2.65


A prominent anthropologist and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand at the time of his death, Webster is also recognised for the dedicated role he played in the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee (DPSC). He was actively involved in the support group for relatives of political detainees in the 1980s and he hosted regular social gatherings, known as the “DPSC tea parties”, for families of detainees to share news and information on detainees. His activism also led to his involvement in other organisations, such as the End Conscription Campaign, Five Freedoms Forum (FFF), the Detainees’ Education and Welfare Organisation and the United Democratic Front (UDF) Cultural Desk.

Only 44 years old when he died, David Webster would have turned 70 on 19 December this year. In commemoration of this event, we take a glance at materials relating to Webster in SAHA’s archival collections.

Collection of the month

SAHA recently acquired an essay from Glenda Webster, the former wife of David Webster, entitled ‘David Webster: A fearless defence of legality and due process?’ She explains her essay as a tribute to David Webster as follows:

From my experience I believe that David’s involvement in the Detainees' Parents' Support Committee (DPSC) gave him a role in struggle against apartheid that was most meaningful to him. It suited his values and his personality. After he was killed I received many letters of consolation. One came from Prof Etienne Mureinik who was the Dean of the Law School at Wits University where I was working as tutor at the time. He described David as a "fearless defender of legality and due process". In my opinion, it was the best and most meaningful tribute I had received about David.

Glenda Webster’s essay seeks to explore the validity of Prof Mureinik’s perception of David’s contribution to the work of the DPSC.

Other SAHA collections containing materials on David Webster

Collage of David Webster images in SAHA collection AL2547

2019 will see the 30th anniversary of David Webster’s death. While Ferdi Barnard was sentenced to life imprisonment for his assassination, it was never fully established which of Webster’s activities led to his end. This is resonated in Webster’s own words when he wrote shortly before his death “Assassinations have the effect of controlling government opposition when all other methods, such as detention or intimidation have failed. It is a very rare event indeed when such assassinations are ever solved”.

See inventory for the Glenda Webster collection (AL3301) and download a copy of the essay ‘David Webster: A fearless defence of legality and due process?’