Many progressive people in Africa were genuinely outraged on learning that the late President Burnham of Guyana, who is believed to have killed the great black intellectual Walter Rodney, was set to be recognized by South Africa as a champion of African liberation. Thankfully the plan aborted
Jeffrey R. Thomas, a senior minister in the Burnham Government of Guyana, addressed a recent letter to President Zuma in which he warned that the president's 'flip-flopping' over a posthumous Oliver Tambo Award for Forbes Burnham threatens South Africa's 'undisputed international respectability' (StabroekNews, May 13, 2013). How fortunate we are that the new South Africa is not built on the shaky foundations conjured by Mr Thomas, whose devotion to his former boss has left him deluded about the paramount ruler's significance on today's world stage.
He seems so accustomed to one-man rule in Guyana that he imagines South Africa in the same light, thinking President Zuma someone in total command of the state, a la Burnham, failing to recognize the presence of a vibrant civil society that has made it possible, thus far, for many voices to be reflected at the level of the state in this new democracy. Mr Thomas may be annoyed that voices he does not like get heard in South Africa, and not just 'pseudo intellectuals', but such is the frustrating business of building a form of democracy he would not have experienced under Burnham.
He may recall that Thabo Mbeki, a well-respected leader, was removed from nothing less than the presidency of South Africa before his term was up through a process of democratic struggle within the ruling party. A party in other words that's far removed from the autocracy under which the minister served Burnham, sponsoring UN resolutions against apartheid while offering none I have heard of against the political thuggery and violence visited upon dissenting voices at home. No doubt there were good men and women who served their country under Burnham, and who, among other fine deeds, were moved by the plight of those living under the iron fist of apartheid rule in South Africa. But even they can't wish away the fact that they represented an administration that was found reprehensible for the unbridled authoritarianism sponsored by its president.
The more important lesson here is that South Africa's new politics is not modeled on the maximum leadership favoured by so many West Indian governments, with Burnham a great exemplar of the style. They aspire to a more inclusive politics. And with this in mind we need to ask who gave the minister the idea that the choice of recipients for South Africa's national awards begins and ends with the president. Again, this is not Burnham's Guyana. When critics of Burnham in Africa got wind of an impending award, they added their voices to evolving democratic processes in South Africa and their arguments seem to have held sway. In articulating their position they invoked the name of Walter Rodney, a ghost in Mr Thomas's letter to President Zuma. However, the minister should be aware that, in Africa, Walter Rodney Lives! And this has implications for any project to celebrate or re-invent Burnham there, even in the midst of the racial insularity that governs Guyana today.
Those who see meddlesome Jamaican professors and the bereaved Rodney family as twisting the arm of President Zuma with irrelevant concerns about freedom and violence in Burnham's Guyana, display woeful ignorance of the conglomeration of forces that influence politics in South Africa, while exaggerating the power of non-South African 'pseudo intellectuals' to dictate action on the ground. At the same time, they underestimate Rodney's legacy in Africa.
There are many in Africa who went immediately into action once they got wind of an Oliver Tambo award for Burnham, and they weren't moved only by the circumstances of Rodney's death. Across Africa, Walter Rodney is best known as author of the highly acclaimed, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which at one stage became required reading in several African universities. During his seven years learning, researching, writing and teaching on the continent, in and out of the classroom, Rodney entered the consciousness of a remarkable generation of African students, thinkers and activists, which included participants in the liberation movements of Southern Africa. When they learned that this brilliant teacher and historian of the African world was banned by the President of Guyana from taking up a job at the local university, they were perplexed as to whether this was the same Burnham who craved recognition as a champion of African liberation. Some saw no more than the paradoxical nature of the average politician. But most became aware of the extremely limited freedom imagined by Burnham; he reminded them of the dictatorships they were battling in Africa.
Walter Rodney left East Africa in 1974 to take up a post as Professor in the History Department at the University of Guyana (UG), resisting the lure of more lucrative employment in North America and Europe. But it was not to be. The resident and insecure maximum leader, LFS Burnham, who treated institutions of the state as his personal property, was intimidated by the mere thought of the presence of Rodney in his own homeland, and instructed the university to revoke the offer, amidst local and international protest. Exposing young Guyanese to a mind that helped inspire a generation of students on the African continent was taking the cause of African liberation too far. That's not the kind of freedom Burnham had in mind for Guyana, and, we can speculate, South Africa, so he denied Rodney his award.
As Rodney remained and struggled with others against authoritarian rule in Guyana, his students, friends and comrades on the continent learned more about the practices of Burnham: a penchant for rigged elections, a preference for one man many votes over the philosophy of one man one vote that was a cornerstone of the anti apartheid movement, proposed constitutions in which the rights of ordinary people who fought colonialism evaporated, state sponsored thugs who attacked public meetings, causing injury and death. Long before news reached them that their inspiring and much loved brother and teacher was killed by a bomb, they had concluded that Burnham was one anti apartheid supporter to be kept at arms length, as they did Mobutu and others on the continent who celebrated black authenticity while squashing the people. The behavior of the Burnham state in the aftermath of Rodney's death, denying that the agent who passed the explosive device to Rodney was associated with the Guyana Defence Force, after dispatching him to a French colony, did nothing to change their outlook on Burnham.
Rodney's supporters in South Africa are now marveling at the amnesia in the actions of people like Senior Minister Thomas, who demand explanations from President Zuma for rescinding Burnham's Oliver Tambo Award, for which they find the paramount ruler well qualified. Yet they conveniently forget that Rodney was exceptionally well qualified for the UG award taken away by Burnham, who was wont to take away deserved awards from Guyanese citizens. These are all 'red herrings' Mr Thomas would say, as Rodney's students in Africa muse: what goes around comes around.
My advice to Mr Thomas and others anxious to find an African award for Burnham is to think of a country where the memory of Walter Rodney would not haunt deliberations at the level of the state. They may want to consider Equatorial Guinea; its president's style of governance will warm the heart of the late LFS Burnham. Just try and avoid the complications of countries like South Africa, where democratic practices unwelcome to Burnham have taken root.
Dr. David Johnson is a Caribbean national who teaches African history at The City College, City University of New York.