Remembering David Webster

#105. Mark May Day. Under leaden skies we drove to Troyeville to Bloemenhof Park for a view of the city’s past and its future. From the park you can see the Johannesburg Athletics Stadium and the massive upgrading of the Doornfontein area where one of South Africa’s premier Soccer World Cup 2010 stadiums – Ellis Park – is located.  Just a few blocks from there marks the spot on Eleanor Street where David Webster, anthropologist, humanitarian, and anti-apartheid activist was murdered for his beliefs. Today the park was renamed as a tribute to his life and memory.

Twenty years ago today South Africa was in the grip of a State of Emergency called by a repressive government so that it could put troops into townships, and arrest, detain and torture its citizens as it fought to keep apartheid alive. They were days of darkness, violent and full of fear. At the University of the Witwatersrand where Webster worked, the police were a common site on campus, bent on suppressing student activists, by arbitrary arrests and detention. They planted spies, disrupted meetings, shot rubber bullets and hurled teargas canisters. I remember the day Webster was killed and the service that was held for him at the university in the days that followed.

Twenty years later we are a million miles from there.

And as the first showers of rain broke through Joburg’s darkened skies I believed Nandi Mayathula-Khoza, a Joburg councillor for community development, who hosted the morning’s events, and welcoming the rain by saying “We are truly blessed”.

Twenty years later, where gunshots had once rang out, there was music, and dance, Jennifer Ferguson and mapantsula, the sound of children playing and the words of a teenage poet and skateboarder named Bheki who bowled the crowd over with his words and his confidence. The park was filled with life as people streamed in, many of them wearing the T-shirts they wore in 1989. There were writers and artists, activists and poets, among them Ivan Vladislavic, photographer David Goldblatt, former Robben Islander Ahmed Kathrada and his partner Barbara Hogan, now South Africa’s health minister and once a student of Webster’s along with Jonny Clegg.

Joburg, a city of gold, a city of hope said one speaker.

Jonny Clegg spoke on behalf of David Webster’s friends, and movingly remembered his colleague and mentor (before Clegg was a “Le Zulu Blanc” he was a lecturer in Anthropology too) referring to him as a “bridge, connecting people in a social structure fragmented by apartheid”. He stood for justice, and for friendship.

The park is a gem. Shiny and delightful. Filled with colourful mosaics by artists from the nearby Spaza Gallery, it is enclosed by wrought iron gates with pretty leafwork, and interesting benches and lighting. It’s a dream playground where Troyeville’s kids skateboard and play basketball, and take classes in creative writing and drama. It’s a joyous patch of land surrounded by beautiful historical houses – that although in disrepair – give a hint of this city’s past.

Lest we forget… its a place of beauty and of hope.

Read more about the park and David Webster on Mike Alfred’s blog, Mainly Johannesburg.

* David Webster Park is on the corner of Beelarts and Clarence Streets in Troyeville.

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  1. Pingback: Troyeville Hotel: Cheap Beer and Pink Flamingos | findingjozi

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