LFS BURNHAM HIS CONTRIBUTION TO THE LIBERATION OF SOUTH AFRICA
by Halim Majeed
Posted on 2010-08-19
This article is reprinted from Kaieteur News August 15th 2010
His Excellency Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Guyana, formerly British Guiana, in December 1964. Following a change in the National Constitution in 1980, he was designated Executive President and Head of State.
President Burnham believed in a cooperative socialist approach to development – what is referred to as Cooperative Socialism – and, during his tenure in Government, gradually adopted a non-capitalist path to nation-building. The tenor of the times and, indeed, his own philosophical convictions impelled him to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, to establish national institutions which buttressed socialist development, and to implement domestic strategies that engendered stability, equity and national dignity.
At the international level, the People’s National Congress Government under President Burnham placed special emphasis on the establishment of diplomatic and trade relationships with the world’s socialist community. At the same time, Guyana became an activist State within the Non-Aligned Movement, and championed – ardently and unapologetically – the cause of the African Liberation Movement, and indeed, the liberation of the oppressed peoples the world over. Regionally, President Burnham mobilized the leadership of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in the direction of articulating and coordinating a Caribbean position against the continuation of imperialism, colonialism and racism in Africa.
When LFS Burnham died in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India observed that the Guyanese President was one of the outstanding leaders of the twentieth century.
President Burnham is of African heritage. His forebears were African slaves brutally uprooted from their homeland to serve as instruments of British imperialism on the sugar plantations of the then British Guiana.
Mr. Burnham himself was born in the dark days of colonial oppression and, therefore, understood – experientially and intellectually – exploitation, inequity and indignity. He was a brilliant son of Guyana and proceeded to study law in the United Kingdom. In his student years in London, a natural affinity emerged for African leaders and the African struggle for independence. It was the birth of his spirit of internationalism. That was to crystallize when he returned to British Guiana in 1949 and became an essential component of the political leadership that had embarked on the arduous struggle for national emancipation.
As early as in 1960, as Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly of the then British Guiana, Mr. Burnham, while attending the Constitutional Talks in Great Britain with the then Colonial Secretary, was arrested while protesting with his colleagues against the barbarous apartheid policies of South Africa. That was the beginning of a long and consistent fight against racist South Africa.
It was in Government, however, that President Burnham – more than any regional and many international leaders – undertook, with missionary zeal, to heighten global interest in the African cause. Indeed, a major thrust of Guyana’s diplomatic outreach was to support, unconditionally, the African liberation struggle in moral, material and other forms.
In every forum – the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth, the United Nations – President Burnham, vigorously and undeviatingly, championed the legitimate concerns of the African peoples. In this context, our diplomatic mission was established in Zambia to connect more closely with the African struggle and to give such support as was required. President Burnham subscribed to the imperishable truth that Guyana’s own freedom was diminished while our African family remained under colonial domination.
President Burnham conceptualized a grand strategy to support the African Liberation Struggle. For him, apartheid, in particular, was abhorrent in absolute terms. The inhuman incarceration of Nelson Mandela and the other great African sons and daughters, and the slaughter of ordinary African citizens, who yearned for freedom, agonized him but strengthened his resolve to do all in his power to support Africa’s freedom. He operationalized that strategy at both the domestic and global levels.
In his bold, characteristic way, he secured parliamentary approval to commit funds from Guyana’s Treasury to aid the African freedom fighters: an initial, annual disbursement of US$50,000 and, subsequently, US$100,000 was given to the African National Congress at a time when Guyana could hardly afford it. In 1981, when Guyana hosted a Forum on the Liberation of Southern Africa, President Burnham increased financial assistance to the African Liberation Movement to the amount of US$250,000.
President Burnham has consistently contended that “the liberation of Southern Africa has always been a critical theme in Guyana’s foreign policy.” In this foreign policy framework, Guyana inaugurated African Solidarity Week so as to facilitate a greater understanding of the Guyanese nation about developments in the liberation struggle of Africa. It was during Africa Solidarity Week that high ranking officials of the African liberation movement would visit Guyana and speak at various public functions on the struggle in Africa.
President Burnham launched a National Signature Campaign for the Release of Nelson Mandela, and made African Liberation his battle cry.
In this regard, he urged the national media to wage a sustained campaign to educate and inform the Guyanese public – and the wider Caribbean public by extension – about the horrors of apartheid and the unjust incarceration of Nelson Mandela and other African Freedom Fighters. As a mark of respect and honour to that indefatigable African patriot, one of Guyana’s premier roadways was named the Nelson Mandela Avenue.
In order to build and strengthen the capabilities and expertise of Southern Africa cadres, President Burnham had mechanisms put in place for their training at Guyana’s various institutions of learning so that, at the appropriate time, they would return to Africa to function in the public service of their countries.
Conscious of the impediments and danger that leaders of the African Liberation Movement encountered, President Burnham instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue Diplomatic Passports to key leaders and cadres from Southern Africa so as to facilitate their mobilization of the international support they required. For example, Mr. Theo-Ben Gurirab, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of Namibia, and Mr. John Makatini, ANC Representative at the United Nations, among others, traveled on Guyana Diplomatic Passports.
In order to strengthen Guyana’s relationship with Africa at another level, President Burnham became the driving force behind the formation of the International Association of National Services Organizations (IANSO), which included a number of African nations such as Tanzania and Zambia, and led to exchange programs in a variety of disciplines.
Aware of the unequal military strengths and capabilities of Angola in relation to South Africa, and in manifest solidarity with Angola, President Burnham directed the relevant agencies and institutions to facilitate without question the re-fuelling and re-supplying of Cuban aircraft on Guyanese soil on their way to Angola so as to support Cuban and Angolan forces in their fight against the apartheid regime – an act of solidarity for which the Guyanese nation was made to pay dearly.
Not content with expressions of support from afar, President Burnham paid State Visits to a number of African nations and, in turn, invited several African Heads of State to visit Guyana – among them President Samora Machel, President Kenneth Kaunda, President Ahmed Sekou Toure, General Gowon and Sir Seretse Khama.
Above all, President Burnham hosted Mr. Oliver Tambo – in a style befitting the unyielding, untiring patriot, dignitary and leader of Africa – who was a Special Guest of Honour. In Guyana, he was treated with the protocol, courtesies and dignity normally afforded a Head of State. Mr. Tambo addressed an Extraordinary Session of the Parliament of Guyana and also spoke at a Mass Rally in the capital city of Guyana, Georgetown, winning the hearts of thousands of ordinary Guyanese.
At the international level, President Burnham played a special, significant and critical role in mobilizing international pressure that greatly assisted in the dismantling of the apartheid regime. During his tenure as Head of Government, Guyana’s officials and diplomats prosecuted his Government’s policies with great vigor. In London, Guyana’s High Commissioner between 1970 and 1975, Sir John Carter, played a crucially important role as Chairman of the Commonwealth Sanctions Committee, which helped to chart the Commonwealth’s policy on UDI in Zimbabwe and apartheid in South Africa. At that time, Africa needed a Chairman from beyond Africa. And it knew that it could rely as much on the sagacity of John Carter as on the resolute solidarity and support of President Burnham.
In London also, Guyana was a prominent Member of the Southern Africa Committee. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Shridath Ramphal, a former Foreign Minister in the Government of President Burnham, played a powerful, unremitting role in the struggle against apartheid.
At the UN General Assembly, on the occasion of its 35th Session, Guyana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, His Excellency Ambassador Noel Gordon Sinclair, served as Chairman of the Fourth Committee, which dealt with the issue of Decolonization. At that forum, Guyana resolutely championed the cause of the ANC and excoriated the apartheid regime.
At the United Nations also, Guyana, under the leadership of President Burnham, played an important role in the formation of the United Nations Council for Namibia. Guyana’s Sir John Carter was elected the first President of that Council. Subsequently, Mr. Rashleigh Jackson, who was later appointed Foreign Minister of Guyana, assumed those duties. When Minister Jackson returned to Guyana to take up his Ministerial appointment, Ambassador Noel Sinclair, who became the new Permanent Representative, functioned as Acting President of the Council for several years.
One of Guyana’s signal contributions in the context of international support for Namibia was its successful work to ensure that the United Nations Council be seen to be acting, on the international stage, as the Government of Namibia.
In Cuba, Guyana’s Ambassador in Havana, His Excellency Cecil Pilgrim, connected almost inseparably with the African liberation leaders who in turn became national leaders on the triumph of their revolutions. He paid special attention to the African National Congress and South Africa. Indeed, he developed a close relationship with the ANC Representative, Mr. Alex Laguma, and his wife, Blanche. Subsequently, as Guyana’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mr. Pilgrim represented the Non-Aligned Movement at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Mr. Pilgrim was also a member of the Commonwealth Observer Mission for the first free elections in South Africa in 1994.
Those multitude of practical action, among others, by President Burnham and his Government led the Leaders of the Frontline States, all of which he made State Visits to, except Angola, to deem Guyana as a Frontline State.
The foregoing represents a mere sampling of President Burnham’s commitment to the struggles of Southern Africa. There were, for example, other noble, courageous acts of solidarity, which are best left unwritten at this time.
For his support to the African liberation cause, President Burnham paid a heavy price. Guyana was ostracized by the West, particularly, the United States and, among other things, aid from the multilateral financial institutions for national development was denied. But he stayed the course with his political and philosophical belief in the indivisible nature of human freedom – always asserting that Guyana could not be truly free while Southern Africa suffered callously from oppression, exploitation and indignity.
On the occasion of the 25th observance of the passing of President Burnham, I feel compelled to chronicle his contribution to the liberation to South Africa. It is a contribution that neither cynics nor foes could deny.