Tribute to Rob Lambert

We received sad news last week on the passing of Rob Lambert. Rob was a long standing SWOP Associate and colleague, a sociologist and labour activist. Eddie Webster has written a fitting tribute to Rob that you can find below.


Rob Lambert, my friend, colleague, and comrade, has died, a conversation has ended. Rob had a dream of a worker-friendly world order. Can that dream be recovered in today’s world of narrow nationalism, xenophobia and uncontrolled global capitalism?

I first met Rob when he visited our home in Essex Grove in Durban in 1973. It was in the wake of the mass strikes of black workers at the height of apartheid. We began a conversation on why previous attempts at building sustainable organizations for black workers in South Africa had been crushed. Rob was already a committed activist who had helped organize workers through the Young Christian Workers (YCW). He had also helped form a Funeral Benefit Fund that was to become the nucleus of the new unions that were to emerge in Durban in the early seventies. In fact he was ahead of his contemporaries in working before the 1973 strikes with progressive trade unionists, such as Harriet Bolton, in Central Court in downtown Durban. For Rob, his commitment to the struggle of workers and the Marxist theory that framed his thinking, ran parallel with an equally deep and very private belief in the values of the Catholic Church.

The conversation that we began that day forty six years ago continued to evolve over the years and never really ended. I said to Rob at the time that maybe he should explore the lessons we could learn from these attempts at worker organization. Rob had a deep and enduring curiosity in the meaning of life and how we could create a better, more peaceful and just world. He came back to me, nearly ten years later.

He came back to me, nearly ten years later. Rob had been persuaded by Rick Turner, a political science lecturer and mentor to many, to study at Warwick University in England. [1]When we met again, Rob had completed his masters degree under the direction of the leading left intellectual of our generation, Martin Leggasick. Rob now wanted to do a PHD on the history of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) , the largest of the organisations of black workers that had struggled unsuccessfully for recognition in the fifties.

I readily agreed and so began a deeper more structured intellectual relationship and friendship. Much to my delight labour historian Phil Bonner, who shared our commitment to worker organization, agreed to co-supervise the thesis. Quite early on in his research Rob developed a complex argument about SACTU; on the one hand, he saw their political links with the the Congress movement as a major reason for their growth. But, on the other hand, he felt if they came too close to these organizations, and the African National Congress (ANC) in particular, they would lose their independence and working class agenda. For Rob, it was the workers through their trade unions who should play the leading role in the evolving national liberation struggle. Importantly, Rob was unequivocally opposed to the decision taken by the Congress movement to conduct an armed struggle. Rob strongly opposed violence in all its forms... READ MORE


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