The man who laid down his life for his friends
It was such “an ordinary day”, the day 18 years ago that changed the life of Maggie Friedman, the partner of David Webster.
On 1 May, 1989, Webster was gunned down outside his and Friedman’s home in Eleanor Street, Troyeville.
”That day completely changed my life – it took a completely different path to what it would have been,” says Friedman now, 18 years later.
They had returned from doing ordinary things – walking the dogs. They had taken the dogs in Webster’s bakkie and returned at around 10 o’clock. Friedman recounted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 the sequence of events.
”David was driving, he parked the car in our street in front of our house and he got out of the car to go out to the back to let the dogs out of the car and I was getting out more slowly on the passenger side and I was aware of a car coming down the street and then I heard what I thought was a car backfiring and it accelerated down the street, and it was only afterwards that I realised something was wrong when I saw that David was staggering and he was holding his chest in the front and he said to me, “I've been shot by a shotgun, get an ambulance’”.
Then Friedman said something chilling: “So David obviously saw his killers, he saw the weapon that killed him and then he fell down on the pavement and he died about a half an hour later.”
A lecturer and researcher
Webster, born in Zambia in 1945, was an anthropologist who joined Wits University as a lecturer and researcher in 1970. He became involved in anti-apartheid politics after he took part in a protest in 1965 at Rhodes University. The protest was against black students being barred from watching the university’s first rugby team from playing.
His doctoral thesis focused on migrant workers from Mozambique, exposing him to their exploitation by government and business.
”This led him to integrate his academic critique of government policies with anti-apartheid political activism,” indicates sahistory.org. He was involved in the Detainee Parents’ Support Committee, the End Conscription Campaign, the Five Freedoms Forum, and the Detainees’ Education and Welfare Organisation.
At the time of his death he was doing research at Kosi Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast. “He was asking questions about things that were happening there and I know there was a lot of speculation that the reason he was killed was because he knew about Renamo [a South African-backed anti-government movement in Mozambique] connections that were happening through there and I think he did know quite a lot about what was going on in those parts, but he wasn't writing a report as far as I know,” Friedman told the TRC.
Lloyd Vogelman, a founder and former director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, writes in a 1990 tribute to Webster that “Dave Webster could not die. He was too much part of life. He was too much part of progressive life in South Africa. He was too much part of mine, my friends’ and colleagues’ history”.
He goes on: “His dedication, loyalty, gentleness, knowledge and expertise ensured that we were at his door frequently.”
His assassination came just nine months before the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, and the final meltdown of apartheid. The country had been unwinding for some time - in 1985, apartheid’s crucial founding laws, the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act were repealed, while the Group Areas Act was amended, to be repealed finally in 1991, together with the 1913 Land Act.
In 1989 the country was a swirling mess of repeated states of emergency, bombings, state-sanctioned killings of innocent people in townships, strikes, mass marches and boycotts, tightening sanctions, media restrictions, and people disappearing and never seen again.
Vogelman says Webster “would have dearly loved to have been an open member of the African National Congress”. In addition, says Vogelman, “we should also never forget how much more he could have given to our country and how much we needed him”.
Selling the house
Friedman’s life didn’t change immediately. She stayed on at their home for another 14 years before selling the house and moving to the nearby suburb of Kensington. “It was a comfort staying on,” she says, “it was quite hard to leave but I was ready to leave four years ago.”
Friedman says it is a beautiful old house. “It has big rooms, a wide passage with archways, an old stove and pressed steel ceilings.” She renovated the house and put in attractive features like bay windows, and built a cottage in the back yard.
Two years after Webster’s death, in 1991, she adopted a child, one of two children she eventually adopted.
In 1999, on the 10th anniversary of Webster’s death, with the help of artist Ilsa Pohl, she decorated the front wall of the house with beautiful mosaic, with symbols that had significance for him.
The mosaic washes along the low boundary wall of the house, and covers the two brick gateposts. On either side of the posts is a bull, a reference, says Friedman, to his work with the rural community in Kosi Bay. A bowl on the front step is symbolic of the washing of hands, a ceremony from his funeral. A soccer ball is depicted, a reminder of his love of soccer and his membership of Orlando Pirates. A giraffe image recalls an angel. Mosaic hands appear along the wall and the posts, those of Friedman’s two children, Pohl’s child and several neighbours’ children.
Inscribed in mosaic on the wall are the words: “Assassinated here for his fight against apartheid. Lived for justice, peace and friendship.”
Thousands of people attended his funeral. The procession walked from St Mary’s Cathedral in the CBD to Westpark Cemetery in Montgomery Park, a distance of around seven kilometres. Police vehicles lined the route – it was the first big funeral of an anti-apartheid activist, says Friedman. Before that time large, public funerals were prohibited.
In 1999 Ferdi Barnard was sentenced to life imprisonment for the death of Webster. He apparently boasted about the murder to colleagues.
Barnard was a member of the Civil Co-operation Bureau, the South African Defence Force’s covert operation, but in effect the apartheid government’s killing machine, at one time under the command of Eugene de Kock, dubbed “Prime Evil” and “Scourge of God”. Both of them now sit in cells in the C-Max high security prison in Pretoria. De Kock was found guilty of 89 charges, six of them murder. In De Kock’s 1998 book entitled A long night’s DAMAGE, he says of Webster: “Yet, in retrospect, the killing of Webster was, besides being an appalling waste of human life, a major miscalculation on the part of those who decided to kill him, doubtless the CCB.
”For one thing, the days of apartheid stalwart PW Botha were numbered and his successor FW de Klerk would, less than a year later, in February 1990, lead the country to a place that had featured only in Botha’s worst nightmares.”
De Kock estimates that between 1977 and 1989, 50 people were assassinated.
Friedman says that Barnard showed no remorse when he was sentenced. She feels unhappy at the fact that he didn’t implicate those who ordered the murder, he didn’t “finger people who were behind it”. Instead, if he’d shown “true remorse, he could have wrapped the whole parcel”.
For her it was a tough 10 years before the sentencing. There were numerous commissions of enquiry, investigations, inquests, rumours and phone calls. But at least now the sentencing has “put to rest my struggle for any justice”. She regrets that so many people will not know justice for their loved ones lost.
Vogelman said: “David’s life tells us that we do have a responsibility to confront the evil and the harsh, but that we should never forget our humour and take pleasure in the parts of our world which are filled with goodness. We must never forget.”
Webster’s simple gravestone in Westpark has the following inscription: “Our beloved David Joseph Webster. Born 19 December 1945, Assassinated 1 May 1989. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
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