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Amandla! Now, Listen to the People

By Sunity Maharaj

 In a cynical world where goodness hardly ever passes without punishment and innocence is routinely slaughtered by opportunity, the arc of Nelson Mandela’s life hangs like a rainbow of vindicated principle across humanity’s troubled sky. 

Martyrdom, the usual penance reserved for the principled, was not to be his destiny.

His was a fabled ending of the triumph of good over evil, retrieved from the realm of myth to be made real before our doubting eyes.

In trusting South Africa to hold the peace, he bet his life against the Hobbesian view of human nature as solitary, poor, nasty and brutish, choosing instead to share Carlisle Chang’s confidence in the inherent nobility of man, even if Chang himself was a martyr in our cause.

Over the past week, much has been discussed about the lessons to be taken from Mandela’s life, but for us in the Caribbean, two that should resonate most powerfully are his understanding of succession preparation as a personal debt to the future, and his trust in the wisdom of that amorphous group called the people.  

For a country that revels in claims to democracy, we in T&T have a morbid fear of the people. In every way that they can, our institutions deny their right to be heard, to be consulted and to participate. You can hardly turn without bouncing into one case or another.

Take The University of the West Indies, for example. 

On Friday, students of UWI’s Department of Festival and Creative Arts resorted to protest action outside a building where businesspeople bidding for a design and build contract for a new Creative Arts Building were being briefed on the bid process. Why the protest? Because the university had not invested any useful effort in consulting with staff and students who, after all, will be the ones to live with the consequences of the building’s design and construction.

Then yesterday, higher up the Eastern Main Road at the Orange Grove Savannah in Tacarigua, members of the Save Our Savannah community were once again on the greens, raising funds and keeping themselves battle-ready against a State company that simply will not take no for an answer. Nothing, not a cease-and-desist order from the Tunapuna-Piarco Regional Corporation, not the public pledge of MP/cabinet minister Prakash Ramadhar, and certainly not the pleas of the community, have succeeded in bringing The Sport Company of T&T (SPORTT) to the table for meaningful consultation. Now the community waits to see if a second stop order will do the trick.

Yesterday, too, UDeCOTT ran full page, full colour ads of righteous indignation to contradict public comments to which it referred but did not identify as having been made by JCC president Afra Raymond in Wednesday’s Business Express — about a lack of public consultation with stakeholder groups for the Couva Children’s Hospital. The ads listed dates of consultations with various agencies and groups.

Perhaps UDeCOTT feels confident about the consultations, but it could’ve put those advertising dollars to better use by reviewing and second-guessing its consultation process to ensure that it was not among the growing list of travesties passing for consultation across the land. 

In almost every matter requiring public input, we’re managing to make a mockery of the consultation process through strategies designed to subvert, circumvent, circumscribe, co-opt, outsmart and, ultimately, silence the voice of the people. Indeed, a whole industry has mushroomed to meet the need for public consultation minus the public. Its specialty is in designing events that look like consultation, sound like consultation but do not actually involve consultation. Afterwards, all the requisite boxes are ticked off to confirm that, yes, all relevant conditions for consultation were met. All except meaningful consultation for which there is no box to tick.

These consultations are peopled by representatives of institutions, many commandeered by the governing party through various political appointees whose job might well be to fall in line and rubber-stamp foregone decisions. Often, selected representatives of the people are lobbied to make up numbers, either in the form of party supporters or government-funded NGOs. If one dissenting group or another manages to make the project a public issue, the people might turn out to hear more, only to be bamboozled by dossiers of data, leaving a Kublalsingh or Aboud or some such representative to resist in their name by whatever means possible.  

Increasingly, the people have been choosing to absent themselves and shut off from the process, convinced that nothing they say will make a difference and that, in any case, international lending agencies seem easily fooled by boxes ticked off by smartmen and women in T&T.  

Instead, in the oldest tradition of subversion, what the people do is wait for their moment and grab it as it comes. Usually, their chance comes in the form of a change of government and the rise of a party that gave them promises in exchange for electoral support. One of the most celebrated examples is the multi-billion dollar nightmare of the aborted Alutrint project. Although the same People’s Partnership government reneged on its promise to the Highway Re-route Movement, the public tab due to protest action keeps running over-time.

With so much at risk, you would think that those charged with managing public funds would be diligent in ferreting out every perspective before signing off on a project, if only to give themselves and their projects the best chance of success. But with the management culture still so deeply rooted in the autocratic style of the old Crown Colony tradition, democratic engagement remains undeveloped to the point of illusory. 

After 51 years of independence, the management class is still to find the self-confidence that will open its mind to the wisdom of bringing people fully into the consultation process. .

Independence has brought its concessions, though. Instead of applying law and force, power today has its way through farcical consultations, bribery, old talk, food and drink.

When that fails, there’s always the option of bullying its way through.

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