By General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress, Lincoln Lewis
As the world mourns the physical loss of Nelson Madiba Mandela and celebrates his legacy, every Guyanese must feel a deep sense of pride that we were a part of the tapestry that wove his life and life’s work. While apartheid existed from 1948 and Guyana began the process of internal self- governance in 1953, it was not until Mandela’s imprisonment in 1964 that apartheid was officially placed on the national radar.
When other countries and governments in our hemisphere danced around, tip-toed, or paid lip service to human rights violations in South Africa, for fear of offending the West, Guyana distinguished itself. When internally, some, driven by a politics said the government’s support (budgetary allocation, strategic access, and kind) for the struggle was driven because Blacks were the victims, the government and a section of this society remain steadfast.
Once called a terrorist by the West for his struggle against apartheid, Madiba never flinched or waivered. During his presidency when the Western powers voiced disappointment with his continued alliance with Cuba and visit to Libya, he reminded all “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?” This was a similar policy embraced by Guyana and with the nation’s non-aligned foreign policy it created the space to give solidarity to the struggles of others where we found common ground.
Were one to honestly examine the stratification of South Africa and those affected by apartheid laws, it would be seen all non-whites were victims. Further, were one to examine the racial demographics of South Africa in that era, it would be seen the society was not biracial but multiracial. And contrary to the position in some quarter that Mandela fought for majority rule, i.e. Black rule, he did not. Mandela fought a system that made legal a two-tiered society, i.e. white and non-whites. It was a system that denied non-whites the right to vote, be treated as equals in the society and participate in decision-making that affect their wellbeing. This was a system that made legal inequality and injustice. Madida fought to overthrown it and proof of it is seen in the way he governed, his relationship with others, his policy for racial reconciliation, and establishment of an inclusionary constitution.
The right to self-determination is inalienable, protected in every universal charter and convention. And where laws exist that undermine or disrespect the universality of these principles, in so far as any exist it must be challenged. Rights are non-negotiable. This is why it is important in mankind’s struggle for justice we ensure that all laws are made consistent with our rights. Rights must underpin laws and laws must be nullified when they are not underpinned by Rights. Rights and the Rule of Law share a symbiotic relationship, neither is independent of the others. They must go hand in hand.
South Africa’s apartheid laws denied some the inalienable right to self-determination, which was a violation of established universal principles. This is where Guyana and the struggle in South Africa found common ground.
Guyana embraced a principled position in the anti-apartheid struggle that even extended to sports. We have experienced our sportsmen who felt the struggle had nothing to do with their sportsmanship on participating in activities in South Africa did not find warm welcome back into the fold. And this position was extended to our CARICOM colleagues who participated in similar activities. The English cricketer, Robin Jackman who played in South Africa and was part of the English team to the West Indies, CARICOM through Forbes Burnham’s initiative that the tour can go ahead provided he was exempted. This led to the aborting of the English cricket tour to the West Indies. The withdrawing of Guyana teams to the Commonwealth and Olympic games in Canada are other testimonies.
The anti-apartheid struggle was embraced by workers, be they unionised or non-unionised. Workers not only supported the struggle through the Government, they also made direct contributions from their earnings and lent solidarity in many other forms.
The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) made direct financial contributions and trade unionists participated in external conferences addressing the South African situation. In 1989 Christopher James from the Guyana Mines Workers’ Union and I attended a World Conference of miners held in Zimbabwe. The prime objective of this conference was to give solidarity to South Africa’s National Union of Mine Workers, who played a leading role in waging the anti-apartheid struggle. This union was led by Cyril Ramaphosa, who subsequently became General Secretary and is now Deputy President of the African National Congress. It was the correct thing to do but we also inspired by the struggles of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and energised by Burnham’s tenacity in making known Guyana’s position on this matter.
Clearly, Guyana in no small measure contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle. In the annals of history lies information of this country serving as a conduit in the struggles of Southern Africa, including South Africa. Planes were refuelled here. The little financial resources we had, we shared. We opened diplomatic channels, local and international, that achieved support and enabled those fighting to end apartheid, arguably the most brutal system in the 20th Century. Our political leadership distinguished itself by the policy carved to render solidarity to a people when some leaders thought otherwise. We stood out in our forceful and unwavering articulation of this issue, guided by the incisive minds of Forbes Burnham, Shirdath Ramphal and Rashleigh Jackson. This policy was continued by Desmond Hoyte on assuming the presidency in August 1985 after Burnham’s death
None could have questioned our commitment, passion and tenacity to the struggle. And as a people who struggled against the indignity and inequality of slavery, indentured-ship and colonialism, support for South African was almost automatic. In looking back we took the correct course of action. With Madiba’s release from prison in 1990, Guyana in prosecuting the case at home and abroad, helped to weaken the tentacles of injustice and inequality and caused others to see and appreciate the correctness in abiding by universal principles.
With Mandela’s ascension to the presidency in 1994 and his attitude at home and abroad, including his friendship towards the oppressors and their supporters, stood him out as man not driven by hate and triumphalism, but one possessing the strength of character to embrace and pursue equal rights and justice for all. He demonstrated disdain for domination/tyranny by the minority or majority, evident in his actions that communicated peace and harmonious co-existence are only achievable when we respect the rights of all, and create and enforce laws built on these rights.
Madiba has left this earthly plain but his legacy remains. It is a legacy capable of surviving him if we sincerely believe in the thrust of Barack Obama’s tribute to this patriot. For we are being reminded Mandela stirs within us our sense of personal responsibility to human development and should also recognise, “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent in their own country.” With Mandela walking in our time, ours still remain a destiny to mould consistent with the values he stood for. These are values built on equal rights and justice. This would be the greatest homage we can pay to this great man.