A BRASS plaque to commemorate the life of anti-apartheid activist David Webster would have been fine, but somehow his story deserved a little more than “fine”.
And that “more” came in the form of a tribute in mosaic on the front wall of the modest Troyeville house where Webster lived with his partner Maggie Friedman. It was also the house where he was shot dead in May 1989 by Ferdi Barnard, a hit-squad member with the government’s covert Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB).
The David Webster house has just been declared one of the city’s latest heritage sites. Tile by tile the mosaic tells the story of a man who lived his life to the full and by principles that mattered to him, even if believing in them put him in the path of danger.
Webster was born in 1945 in Zambia. He moved to South Africa as a student at Rhodes University and by 1970 became an anthropology lecturer at Wits University.
In the 1980s he became involved with the anti-apartheid movement. After his friend Neil Aggett was killed in detention, he formed the Detainee Parent Support Committee. The organisation advocated against detention without trial and other human-rights violations committed by the apartheid government.
Webster also became active in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the various affiliated groups that were formed to fight apartheid atrocities.
His academic work took Webster to the Kosi Bay area. But while conducting anthropological research on kinship and migrant labour, he stumbled upon the underground activities of the security forces that were smuggling weapons into the country from Mozambique.
This knowledge and his public life of fighting apartheid put him in the government’s firing line. Barnard shot Webster on May 1, 1989, as Webster returned from a shopping trip.
Barnard was later sentenced to two life sentences and an additional 63 years in prison.
Friedman, who was instrumental in having the house declared a heritage site, placed a rock at the spot where Webster fell. But in the 10 years after his death she and a group of Webster’s friends had the mosaic made. Part of the mosaic reads: “David Webster 19 Dec 1945 - 1 May 1989. Assassinated here for his fight against apartheid. Lived for justice, peace and friendship”.
“We wanted the mosaic to show the fullness of David’s life and also what was important to him,” says Friedman.
The mosaic was created by artist Ilse Pahl. Friedman says the process of putting it together had a festival atmosphere to it, just as she says Webster would have wanted.
“It was like a huge street party when we put it together and all of David’s friends were here,” she remembers.
The mosaic is not just a memorial, but a tribute to Webster. The entrance shows a traditional bowl for washing, representing cleansing.
There are Nguni cattle depicted as they are close to the hearts of the communities that he worked among; there’s a soccer ball for his love of sports and outstretched hands, representing friendship, optimism and hope.
One of the hands is the cut-out of Friedman’s daughter, Ruby’s hand. She was just five when the mosaic was made. Now an 18-year-old matric pupil, she never knew Webster but grew up with the stories of the man who was not just her mother’s partner, but was also an icon in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Friedman welcomes the heritage declaration and protection for the house that the couple first moved in to in 1986. “I’m happy about the heritage declaration because the house is important to tell the story of what happened to David,” she says.
Veerle Dieltiens, current co-owner of the house, was in high school when Webster was shot. She remembers cutting out an article about the shooting, understanding the gravity of what had happened.
“I love this house and I love what it stands for,” she says.
She and her partner have lived in the house since 2002 and appreciate people’s curiosity and interest in 13 Eleanor Street, even if it does mean increased pedestrian traffic.
“I can remember opening the curtains one morning and there was a group of school children outside the house – it was Ruby and her classmates on a field trip to look at the mosaic and to talk about David’s life.”