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Minus Mandela

By Clarence Rambharat

 Nelson Mandela is gone, but where do his lessons leave Trinidad and Tobago? Lydia Polgreen, the Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times, points to South Africa’s loss of a moral centre. But if it existed at some time, a moral centre is not something post-Independence Trinidad and Tobago has known. That must be something for our PM and Leader of the Opposition to ponder on their journey by private jet to South Africa for Mandela’s funeral. But, can they fix it?

In her December 5 piece, Polgreen notes that even years after Mandela “retreated from public life”, his name “still resonated as an emblem of his effort to transcend decades of racial division and create what South Africans called a rainbow nation”. But for South Africa some of his gains have been eroded by his successors in a not unusual storyline of corruption, unrest, instability, and worsening social conditions. 

With Mandela gone, his reverence will be re-examined, and his legacy will surely attract more criticism especially as South Africa’s troubles deepen. Politicians will be keen to ride his legacy, imitate his demeanour, and associate with his humility. But Mandela’s lessons must truly belong to the social activists who chip away at political entitlement and build the cause of social justice. 

For me, years before I became a teenager, but already deeply reliant on radio and calypso for message and analysis, Mighty Sparrow’s “Isolate South Africa” was not understood in 1982. How could Sparrow, a black icon, wish annihilation on a part of his “mother country”? Cricketer Robin Jackman’s ban by Guyana in 1981 was known but not understood. And, in any event, one side of the argument on the South African tour by the West Indian rebels had been framed as the players’ right to earn their keep, and that argument had seemed easier to understand. 

But calypsonians dutifully recorded pro-Africa and anti-apartheid messages and got the desired airplay from radio DJs who understood the responsibility for getting the messages out. Tobago Crusoe’s Calypso Monarch win in 1983 with “Don’t Cry” and “South Africa” brought a better sense of the realities of South Africa, apartheid, and Sparrow’s earlier message. I had the good fortune of NJAC activist Ope Kojo as an English teacher. And, by the time we got to Duke’s “Apartheid” in 1985, the 1986 protests outside the Queen’s Park Oval against Graham Gooch’s inclusion in the touring England squad, and Duke’s “How Many More Must Die” in 1985/6, we all knew better. 

With Mandela gone, this remains. Social activism, social justice, and public interest education are inseparable and critical to a meaningful democracy. In many cases the message is more important than the messenger, but in rare cases the messenger becomes the message. And, carrying that responsibility, Mandela embodied humility. In the next few days there will be hundreds of arrogant politicians describing that humility while making deals with political investors.

Our writers, artistes, and calypsonians, not our politicians, will have to lead our reflection on Mandela’s death and our own circumstances, especially as we prepare to celebrate his life in 2014. But, as social activists, the work of our calypsonians has not been the immortal stuff. Since Singing Sandra’s calypso monarch-winning, “Voices in the Ghetto”, very few lyrics have stuck. There are few in the line of Sparrow’s political and social commentary and Chalkie’s and Stalin’s nagging social conscience. Now, social activism, including calypso, is heavily reliant on political sponsors to the extent that social activism is politics in sheep’s clothing. 

As political fortunes have swung, so has the ethnic “pendulum” as one current Government minister once described it. There is a scarcity of public interest litigation and Freedom of Information requests as social activists found parliamentary seats and now fatten themselves while their freedom-fighting causes are skin and bone. The judicial review that rocked the public service and shook the walls of self-interest has dried up. No one is challenging lack of promotion and opportunity. And the evidence of the shift is all over. 

With the large footprint of combative politics and the lack of neutrality in State decision-making, every messenger relies on obvious or vague ties to political sponsorship. Nothing it seems moves around this country without that double-edged political hand guiding as required and blocking when it calls for that. 

In this form, social activism is underwritten by divisive politics and its financiers. 

Our lives are fully controlled by Politics Inc., the labyrinth that underlies elected and appointed office. In the hands of return on investment, misery is the gross output of Politics Inc. Every politician believes social causes produce no return on investment for financiers of political parties. So, payback is rooted in asphalt, concrete and infrastructure. The slipway to political party financiers is lined with fat legal briefs, construction and other procurement contracts, and access to or control of State resources or functions. And, whether in denial or desire, we will not be activists in our own cause but expect that change will come. As calypsonian Johnny King sang: “In the end we will be happy”. 

Ultimately it was not only the sheer ruthlessness of apartheid or the blood flowing constantly in South Africa that caught our attention. It was Mandela’s grace, gratitude and humility. It was his ability to descend and ascend and stay rooted to the cause. And, it was both his flexibility and inflexibility. 

We love Mandela not only because of his strength and deep-rooted beliefs but also because of our weaknesses and lack of conviction. Until now we have been content to immerse ourselves with the retrospective view of Mandela’s struggle, blinding ourselves to our own causes that we kick down the road. But, Mandela is gone, and we need to carry on ourselves.  

(For Ope Kojo, teacher

 extraordinaire and social activist)


• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer

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