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The Burnham factor
by Shaun Michael Samaroo - STABROEK NEWS
Posted on 2013-04-25

In awarding its highest national honour, the Oliver Tambo Award, to the late President Forbes Burnham, South Africa recognises a crucial integrity of character in us as a nation.

In that famous song, “Gimme Hope Joanna”, by our own Eddy Grant, sung at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday tribute to a global audience in South Africa, we find a cultural bond between us and that African nation, a bond of of immense richness and value.

20130425shaunGrant’s gift to us and to South Africa follows the lead of Burnham, who stood up on the world stage in the 1970s and ‘80s to demand justice in the then apartheid-riddled South Africa.

Burnham’s eldest daughter, Roxane, and her husband, former minister of health Dr Richard Van West Charles, received special invitations from the South African government to travel there to receive the award.

The moment marks a significant point in our history.

In fact, the award marks Burnham’s strength and integrity in taking a stand to ban the English cricketer Robin Jackman in 1981 from playing Test cricket in Guyana because of his sporting ties with apartheid South Africa.

Although the award comes in the name of Burnham, we must recognise that South Africa is recognising our nation as a whole.

So we ought to take this moment to reflect on what it means for us to be thus rewarded.

Of deeper and more value, however, is for us to re-think the role of Burnham in shaping us as a nation. Our identity as a Guyanese people, unique among the nations of the 21st century, demands that we embody a healthy perspective of the leaders who moulded us as a people.

Just as America and England and Jamaica and Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago embrace their defining political leaders, despite their political persuasions, we must see the role of Burnham, Cheddi Jagan, Walter Rodney and so on with clear vision, unclouded by emotive reactions.

After the economic collapse of the early 1980s, and because of Burnham’s socialist policies, most of the nation pushed him into a bad historical corner, and in the process nullified his contribution to us as a people.

Of course we harbour among us strong defenders of Burnham, but we now label these Burnhamites.

Though a lot of the policies of Burnham hampered our economic progress, we must recognise his role as our visionary, and his exemplary global leadership.
His banning, for example, of imported food, was purely a practical matter, and happened only after the US government refused to accept a Guyana government cheque before it released the boat bringing wheat to Georgetown.

We ran out of wheat, and the US refused to accept a cheque from the government, while halting the PL480 free-wheat programme that it re-installed under President Desmond Hoyte in 1985.

These details of our history must one day override the political propaganda that captures the imagination of our people. We must tell our story, and get the facts straight.

Burnham’s stifling of press freedom was no different than what goes on now, where the freely and fairly elected government exercises shocking bully tactics in monopolising the media, and where friends and family of powerful state leaders receive broadcast licences to manipulate Internet access, and the airwaves.

Whilst Burnham acted under strong conviction of values, and reacted to the then geopolitical realities, today we see our government acting with petty and shallow motivations, seeking only personal enrichment in corrupt deals and cronyism of the worst order.

In Burnham we saw some significant efforts: his innovation to install a tripartite economic model – based on cooperatives, private initiative and public enterprise. Much of what we vilified, in the glass factory, the manufacturing of the Tapir vehicles, the chinaware industry, the clay-brick factory, the Mabaruma solar-panel hospital, bio-gas, the Demerara Harbour Bridge, building Linden, the many main roads and electricity to most of the coastland – and so many other initiatives, now appear to be far-sighted wisdom.

One section of our population sees Burnham as pro-African. This in fact may be far from the truth, as he shunned such radical Africanism as, for example, Eusi Kwayana’s transformation from Sidney King.

The story is that Sidney King was a close confidante and friend, and a frequent visitor to the Burnham household. But after Kwayana changed his name and adopted the Rastafarian way of life, Burnham withdrew from that friendship. Burnham also seems to have disagreed with Walter Rodney’s sentiment about the Caribbean’s place with Africa.

After being a student of law in England, Burnham accepted Guyanese as a western people, as indeed a new nation, as one people unique upon the world stage.

Burnham’s father was born in Barbados, and migrated to Guyana, becoming a school principal and minister in the Methodist church in Kitty. There were two Burnham brothers born in Barbados to a freed slave, one moving to Panama and the other to British Guiana.

The Burnhams kept the names given to them as slaves, and that’s another fascinating story, for another time.

Born in 1923, Forbes Burnham would have been close to his father’s stories of slavery on a Barbadian plantation, where his grandfather would have been a freed slave.

Moving from such a background to become an Oxford lawyer, Burnham would have developed a unique perspective of the world. In him, we may have seen the quintessential Guyanese, with close relatives – his uncle and cousins – living in Panama. He married a Trinidadian, Sheila, who herself was born in St Vincent.

Burnham embodied a unique new man – the Caribbean man. And he shaped a new path for us as a people.

Many of these fascinating facts about the man we do not tell in our history.

He may have known he was making a new world, shaping a new nation, moulding a new destiny for a new people. This insight may have driven him, consuming his days. Himself a minister in the Methodist tradition, he would have embodied a strong Christian, western view of the world.

As South Africa honours us through him, let us re-think his impact on us.

The Burnham factor is a crucial element of who we are as Guyanese. (Eds Note: The bestowing of the Oliver Tambo Award has reportedly been postponed.)

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