Was Webster a victim of the hunger strike success?

Fingers are being pointed at the police after the assassination this week of anti-apartheid activist Dr David Webster. The shock and anger caused by his death have set the stage for a large and emotional funeral tomorrow, with the organisers concerned about the possibility of the state restricting proceedings as it routinely does with the funerals of black activists. As the shock waves reverberated through anti-apartheid organisations, some speculated that Webster's death was a consequence of the victory of the recent detainees' hunger strike.

ebster was a proponent of the view that the state resorted to assassination when it had no other weapons to use against activists. In a paper he wrote only days before his death, he pointed to "a steady tempo of kidnappings and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists." The paper, entitled  ‘‘Repression and the State of Emergency'' and prepared, for the South African Review, was written with his lover, Maggie Friedman, who was with him when he was shot outside his home on Monday morning.

Webster's close friend and fellow, anti-detentions campaigner Dr Max Coleman said it was clear that Webster had been assassinated by a 'highly professional hit squad. "I find it hard to believe the authori­ties are unaware of the existence of these crack death squads. Instead of offering rewards and releasing identikits after the event they should be conducting intensive investigations into the activities of these squads. "Coleman said there  "may be no more profitable place to start" than within the ranks of the police them­selves".

United Democratic Front acting publicity secretary Mohammed Valli Moosa, speaking in his personal capacity, said there was strong suspicion among the "ordinary people of this country" that Webster's assassin was a member of the police force. Meanwhile the police have moved quickly and very publicly to show that their investigation is being thoroughly conducted. The commissioner of police, at the request of Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, has offered a R 10 000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction, and the day after the assassination police released identikit pictures of three white suspects. Investigating officer Colonel Floris Mostert said the identikit pictures had been compiled from an eye-witness report. He said the identity of the in­ formant, and the make and colour of the car could not be released as this could hamper the investigation.

Friedman said she heard a bang and thought it was a car backfiring. "Then I turned round and heard Da­vid say, 'I've been shot with a shot­ gun, get an ambulance.' He collapsed on the pavement and died about half an hour later. "I saw a white car with darkened windows shoot off, but I didn't get its number plate," she said. Mostert said that if there was a car involved it was not the white one mentioned. He also said Webster died "almost instantly" from the shot­ gun blast, and it was unlikely that he said anything before dying. Opposition organisations have ex­pressed surprise that police came up with such detailed identikit portraits of the suspects so soon after the event, when it is alleged that the shots were fired from a moving car.


Coleman dismissed Mostert's suggestion that it was possible that the murder was not politically motivated. "The killers were professional well-informed and expert. His address was not in the phone book but the killers must have had him and his house under surveillance for some time in order to · know his movements." Webster's death has focused re­newed attention on the growing list of unsolved assassinations (See Apartheid Barometer, page 8). According to figures compiled by the Human Rights Commission and by Webster himself, 61 anti-apartheid activists have been assassinated inside South Africa since 1978. In 60 of these cases no-one has been arrested or charged. In the same period at least anti­apartheid exiles were assassinated outside South Africa· Several other anti-apartheid activists have simply "disappeared" inside South Africa or have been abducted from their homes in exile.

According to a December 1988 Hu­man Rights Commission report, 113 arson and other forms of attack on anti-apartheid organisations and individuals had been listed over the past four years. No arrests had been made in connection with these incidents. In February this year 32-page re­port from the US State Department highlighted the existence of police death squads. The report mentioned court cases and out-of-court settlements which "continued to reveal police excesses and the existence of police death squads operating completely outside the Jaw both inside and outside the country''.

Several organisations have expressed a lack of confidence in police willingness to track down Webster's assassins. "We challenge the police, who were able in one week to trace a bullet fired into the Ellis Park Stadium from a flat in Hillbrow to find the perpetrators of this wicked murder," said the Black Sash. Groups associated with the Mass Democratic Movement have said. Webster was a logical target for as­sassins because of his central position in a variety of anti-apartheid initiatives, and in particular his upfront position in opposing detention and other forms of repression.

Webster was a founder member of the Detainees' Parents Support Committee, and when that was banned last year, he helped form a group called Detainees' Education and Welfare. He played a central role in organising the last three tea parties, for the families of detainees – all of which were disrupted by security police. Webster's funeral will be held at 10am tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Gavin Evans
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