The campaign to deny Guyana’s late President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham South Africa’s Order of the Companions of O R Tambo Award, is deserving of exposure. Gleaning from the information superhighway, this campaign is led by Jamaican Professor Horace Campbell of Syracuse University, New York and Dr Walter Rodney’s family.
The O R Tambo Award is conferred on foreign nationals (heads of state and government) and other foreign dignitaries who promoted South Africa’s interests and aspirations through co-operation, solidarity and support.
Named after the gentleman who served the African National Congress (ANC) as acting president, president, general secretary and national chairperson, and who was hosted by the PNC government in 1987, Tambo was known for his strong activism to end apartheid and dedicated his time in exile to mobilising opposition to this modern slavery. It should be noted that those opposing the award to Burnham are not doing so from the standpoint that he does not qualify for the award based on the criteria set out. Their contention is Burnham is undeserving because according to them he assassinated Walter Rodney (Camp-bell’s camp), or because what they think the award was revised to mean (Rodney’s family).
The Rodney family in a letter (April 21, 2013) to the South Africa government made the case that Burnham is undeserving because, “the family noted that it is critical to examine the historical basis for this national award. In 1998, the South African Presidential Advisory Council on National Orders revised its orders to reflect the spirit of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy where a culture of human rights prevail.” The O R Tambo Award did not come into effect until December 6, 2002. Even if it had been prior to 1998, given what the Rodney family stated as against what the OR Tambo award sets out to honour, the family and the South African government have some explaining to do.
They need to explain how Fidel Castro (2009), for example, was a recipient, as a leader who presided over a nation where there were rampant human rights violations.
South Africa, given its recent history under the ANC and the miners-police clash leaving scores dead, makes the country ineligible for any claim to human rights purity, much less use the same as a criterion to confer an award.
The praxis of Rodney was one that expounded Marxism and the replacement of the political establishment. His mentor and friend, CLR James acknowledged Rodney was an “advanced” Marxist. At his death on June 13, 1980, within the proximity of Guyana’s main penitentiary, the Camp Street Prison, he was reportedly holding a walkie-talkie device in his lap which detonated while sitting in a car with his brother, Donald Rodney. It is said that Gregory Smith, a member of the army, gave him the device. Smith eventually moved to French Guiana. Enter the mystery and the concomitant questions to answer. Foremost among these was, what was Rodney doing with this device having been given it by a member of the army?
Rodney’s brand of revolutionary politics was practised in the era of the Cold War, decolonisation, Latin Ameri-can armed resistance, and African-American Civil Rights struggles; in addition Guyana was integral to the geopolitical interests of both the Soviet Union and the United States. His praxis also saw his expulsion from Jamaica. And while some may argue it was an era where attention was given to surviving sensibly or courting heroic death, something that should have been foremost in Rodney’s mind as a believer in revolution, the decision he took is worthy of examination. CLR James, addressing an audience a year into Rodney’s death had, among other things, said:
“Walter did not study exactly the taking of power… Ultimately, then, Walter formed an organisation. He has to start an organisation. He had spent some time on it and he formed it. He was the chief person of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). He recognized that Burnham meant mischief and that he was prepared to use all power, the armed power of the state, to destroy the opposition. Rodney knew that and he tried to organise against it. And he organised wrong. A key problem in the face of overwhelming state power is how to arm oneself against it. In fact, the arms for a revolution are there: the police and the army have them. What you have to do is win over a section of the army, and you have arms. And you could also take away arms from the government. …..That is why Walter found himself in a car with a member of Burnham’s army making some arrangement about some gadget that turned out to be an explosive. He should never have been there. No political leader had any right to be there. Not only should he have never been there, the people around him should have seen to it that he was not in any such position. That was a fundamental mistake, and it was a political mistake. It was not a mistake in personal judgment. It was because he was doing all sorts of things to show them that a revolutionary is prepared to do anything. And that was not the way.”
When James made these statements in 1981 the blame was laid at Burnham’s feet, even though he acknowledged the army was integral to Rodney’s revolutionary direction and accused Smith of being an agent of Burnham. Apparently, James was unaware, or pretended not to know, Rodney had already infiltrated the military and was acquiring weapons. On September 19, 2010 in Stabroek News, the revelation came when it was reported that the WPA’s co-leader Rupert Roopnaraine had admitted that the party was accumulating weapons before the murder of Dr Walter Rodney: “We were accumulating weapons… we were accumulating equipment of various kinds. A certain amount of that was coming from the military.” The WPA had infiltrated the army, had agents within its midst working on the party’s behalf and was illegally acquiring weapons from the state. Rodney understood insurrectionist tactics, contrary to James’s thinking.
Given this information and the late Smith’s statement that Rodney’s death was an accident and he was prepared to return to Guyana to testify if given the needed security, Pandora’s box opens wider, redirecting attention to the politics of the era, Rodney’s ideology and his threat to the geopolitical interests of the mutually distrustful superpowers.
The PNC under the leadership of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham brought in forensic experts, and under Hoyte held a judicial enquiry. In 2005 Corbin was part of the legislature that unanimously voted for an international commission to inquire into Rodney’s death.
The WPA is at present part of the opposition legislative majority and can use its muscle, if it cares to do so, to have a commission established. This gives rise to another matter of interest: If the party of Burnham knows its Founder Leader was guilty of Rodney’s death why is it supporting an inquiry? In spite of the foregoing, the chorus of ‘accuse and not prove’continues. As recently as 2012 Associate Professor David Hinds, said the WPA believes Burnham assassinated Rodney. Mind you, all these believers are teaching at tertiary level and imparting knowledge to shape impressionable minds. Hence the question becomes, do they teach their students that the credibility of a theory rests in proving its hypotheses? Or are these students being taught that they must stick to their position regardless of new evidence?
Those interested in Rodney’s praxis from a position of knowledge, must see Rodney for who he was, not how the keepers of the Rodney brand want us to see him. The evidence to date reveals Rodney was a man with limitations, book smart, with an interest in human/ political activism and driven by an ideology he practised, and that the era in which he operated, posed a threat to him and influenced his demise. Did he court heroic death, or was he reckless or naïve as CLR James suggested? That is for his supporters to define. Was Burnham responsible for his death? The evidence to date says no. And this is for Burnham’s supporters to acknowledge.
So what is Rodney’s legacy his supporters are trying to protect, and what does it have to do with Burnham? A legacy is what one has done during one’s lifetime and not how one has met one’s death.