Shock treatment


By Suzy Bernstein: On Sunday a city park was dedicated to murdered activist David Webster; it is time to remember ...



Twenty years ago, David Webster was brutally murdered outside his home in Eleanor Street, Troyeville. On Sunday, a community, grown in time, filtered through events and percolated into a rich viscous substance, came together to weave together this tapestry as an attempt to make sense of the events of that day.

In the 80’s there were many more of us. To be gathered together with some of those that have remained in the country, is both informative and healing. People’s eyes search and scan the crowd and there is a deep resonance and acknowledgment within on seeing someone from that time. Some of us have maintained contact, but the joint nature puts a specific meaning on this “gathering” that in 2009 is not illegal. It has taken 20 years before this past can be revisited. 


Johnny Clegg comes forward to talk of his anthropological association with David Webster. The rain comes down, just a light shower; causing us to twitter and regroup, huddle closer together. A young poet stands up and in trying to describe himself he cannot. He tells us how he is many things, a poet, a skate-boarder and begins to recite a poem about David Webster. Maggie Friedman (the then partner of David Webster) plants a tree. People use this opportunity to disperse, needing to connect, to hug, to touch, to smile, to give rise to tears and voices from the past. There are many speakers. Max Coleman, (a former member of the Detainees Parents Support Committee) and other speakers transport us back to a time when words like “Suppression of Communism”, Defiance Campaign, Security Police, Military Intelligence, State of Emergency etc were ominous, but well known words in our vocabulary. 


I can only speak from a personal point of view. 



Twenty years ago, we lived alongside activists who were living in the present. UDF artwork being worn on T-shirts; posters on walls; banned books hidden in bookshelves; young parents in hiding, always waiting for the knock of the security police; lovers and husbands on the run; love across the colour bar; landlords who didn’t want “activists” on their property; people who had tea parties, talking and trying to make sense of the time that we lived in - a time of transition, a time where you might almost find a voice, where a voice from within might come up to question the politics of that day. And where you might somewhere be able to make sense of the order of the day. 


And so, all these years later, we see the benefits of history. 


We were moving house on that day. We lived a few houses down the road from Maggie Friedman and David Webster in Eleanor Street. The truck was parked on the side of the road and we were loading it. I was pregnant. Suddenly Maggie came running down screaming. David’s been shot! My (ex-)husband was a young doctor and he ran up to their house, but sadly, David was already dead. 


It was only after my most recent move that I began to wonder. Why was moving always such a traumatic experience? It is supposed to be a time of new beginnings. But I would always have this terrible sensation, this terrible anxiety, and things would go wrong. What was supposed to be a new beginning always got stuck somewhere. And then, it hit me. My God, it was that move! I was stuck in the past. 


And so, I assume for everyone, for an unconscious community, an event like the murder of David Webster resonates; on many, many unconscious and deep seated levels. Sometimes it takes us several years to even begin to understand and make sense of our history. This event gave substance to that. Yes, we can try through events like the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. But this was special. All those faces of the past, now present in the future, coming together to open this park for children in this city that is constant re-birthing. 



Jennifer Ferguson, who has just flown in from Sweden, sings a song for David, holding us in a space through the power of music and song, I take pictures of her as I have done many, many times over the last 20 years. A young black man standing there comments that this is a South Africa he doesn’t know about. All these “umlungus” who clearly hold so much history. A history that he perhaps was unaware of. Moving into Dance coming on the stage and jiving! Taking us back to the days of Sophiatown, reminiscent of the Don Mattera’s, the Miriam Makeba’s and the Dolly Rathebe’s. 


At the end of the day there are just a few of us there. Jennifer takes to the stage and invites the young children playing in the park onto the stage with her. They sing their hearts out and through the power of her voice, of the joint voices, we take cognisance of the now, in relation to the then. Kids rearing to go. Energy bubbling at the surface. They now have a place to play. David would have loved this. Shoot me, shoot me, they shout, wanting their photographs taken, and revel in the opportunity to look at themselves on this tiny screen, thereby giving themselves a place in history. Maggie and I touch, eyes holding a gaze. No need to speak. I am one of the lucky ones who have made sense of my life in this country by taking pictures, thousands and thousands of pictures - images emblazoned in my consciousness, my personal dictionary that helps me make sense of this deep and layered history. 


I make my way to the Spaza gallery (up the road), where they are exhibiting posters from 1989. There is a banner on the ground, with a picture of David Webster, that people are being invited to sign. I am bending down, coaxing someone to sign, so I can take a photograph. People are standing there, thinking of what to say, gathering their messages in their heads. I lean against a wall and am suddenly struck by a live wire, electricity, surging through my body. A huge energy goes through my body – shock treatment, I think. And I stand up rather shaken, but feeling electrified on this Worker’s Day. 


Viva David Webster, Viva.

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