Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pitiful moment for South Africa

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Mark Fraser

THE GOVERNMENT of South Africa has found itself in an embarrassing position after having felt compelled to postpone a posthumous conferment of its highest national honour, the Oliver Tambo Award, on Guyana’s late president, Forbes Burnham.

The Tambo Award is normally conferred on outstanding foreign personalities for their contributions in helping to bring about the collapse of apartheid in South Africa.

Think of the assassination of the famous Guyana-born historian, pan-Africanist and political activist Walter Rodney and the puzzle over the postponement of the Tambo award to Burnham clears up. 

The award is named after the late revered leader of the African National Congress (ANC) which has been governing South Africa since the collapse of apartheid. 

Among recipients of the award over the years from the Caribbean region were the late Guyana president Cheddi Jagan; Jamaica’s late prime minister Michael Manley and the former-long serving Commonwealth secretary general, Sir Shridath Ramphal.

The award for Burnham was scheduled to have been received by his eldest daughter, Roxanne Van West Charles on April 27, to coincide with the annual “Freedom Day” national honours ceremony  in Pretoria.

The decision to defer the award to Burnham followed militant opposition from various quarters in the Caribbean as well as in USA and also among South Africans. Critics have been writing and commenting on whether the late Guyanese president was being honoured for the death of Rodney. 

Clearly not. But the current South African administration of president Jacob Zuma cannot be unaware or unmindful of the serious political implications of conferring the Tambo Award on Burnham.

Walter Rodney was passionately spearheading a national campaign against Burnham’s dictatorial regime when he was murdered in his car by an assassin’s bomb on the night of June 13, 1980, in Georgetown.

The crime was linked to Guyana Defence Force Sergeant Gregory Smith, whose escape to neighbouring French Guiana was facilitated by the Burnham regime. He died there years later.  

Smith, who was traced to French Guiana by this columnist who was then working for the Caribbean News Agency out of Barbados, was to first plead innocent before claiming that the tragedy “an accident…”

It was an “accident” that had then-president Burnham openly gloating, as recalled last month by the Jamaican historian and Pan-Africanist Dr Rupert Lewis, author of Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought.

In joining the outcry against the planned Tambo Award for Burnham, Dr Lewis noted in a statement: “Anyone who witnessed Forbes Burnham on television gloating about the killing of Walter Rodney by a bomb nearly 30 years ago would be shocked to learn that South Africa is to posthumously reward  him with the Oliver Tambo Award…

“It is not that Burnham did not contribute to the anti-apartheid cause, but unlike the Caribbean  political leaders of the time, he eliminated individuals in the political opposition within Guyana. Rodney was the best known of these political activists and the most prominent Pan-Africanist in the 1970s…” 

Another well known Jamaican scholar and Pan-Africanist, Dr Horace Campbell, had earlier noted that Rodney was “unstinting and unrelenting in his opposition to all forms of oppression” that included the “Burnhamist dictatorship in Guyana…”

Therefore, he felt that  “granting this posthumous award to Burnham will demean the memory of Oliver Tambo. If there are still progressive forces within the African National Congress they should  rescind this award….”

Legendary Caribbean novelist and social commentator, George Lamming, for one, would most certainly be among advocates for withdrawal of this award to Burnham.


I recall Lamming’s memorable eulogy for Rodney’s funeral at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Georgetown: 

“Sometimes,” he intoned, “it may take a death and a special kind of dying to quicken the truth that is not urgently alive in our own consciousness…

“Today, we meet in a dangerous land, and at the most dangerous of times. The danger may be that supreme authority, the supervising conscience of the nation, has ceased to be answerable to any moral law; has ceased to recognise or respect any minimum requirement of ordinary  human decency….

“Walter Rodney’s death, like the manner of his dying, has quickened the truth  and provoked within and beyond Guyana a rage and grief  which official authority could never have anticipated.”

That was three decades ago. Perhaps President Zumba and his advisers were too preoccupied with other matters to reflect why previous ANC administrations in Pretoria never considered Burnham for the Tambo Award. 

Now, however, that the South African government has quietly postponed extending this honour to Burnham, it should perhaps also consider offering an apology to his family for the inconvenience and embarrassment  involved.