President Jacob Zuma and the ANC-led South African Government’s decision to name Forbes Burnham as a recipient of The Order of the Companions of O R Tambo award, South Africa’s highest award for foreign nationals, has proven to be a terrible miscalculation. They should have known that the backlash from progressive Pan Africanist intellectuals and grassroots groups would be swift. After all, Burnham has long been seen as culpable in the death of Dr Walter Rodney, one of Africa and the Caribbean’s greatest Pan Africanist intellectuals. The protest against Burnham receiving this award came not only from renowned Pan Africanist intellectual Professor Horace Campbell, but also from groups all over Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, including the September National Imbrizo, an influential revolutionary group within the ANC.
South Africa owes it greatest debt of gratitude to these progressive forces that energized, sustained and popularized the anti-apartheid struggle around the world. Dr Walter Rodney is very popular among these forces. His book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is celebrated as one of the seminal works on Africa’s liberation, and his social and political thought on the liberation of Africa and Africans the world over are celebrated among intellectuals and the grassroots. Therefore conferring this award on Forbes Burnham would have been an affront to the memory of Walter Rodney and his legacy on African liberation.
Burnham’s apologists will attempt to argue that his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle should be looked at in isolation in determining whether he merits this award. Indeed, during Burnham’s rule, he not only occupied rhetorical space on the question of South Africa’s apartheid conditions, he made some tangible contributions to the cause. However, while Burnham was opposing apartheid rule in South Africa, he was imposing dictatorial rule in Guyana. He oppressed and suppressed fundamental freedoms. He was responsible for rigged elections, ethnic marginalization, and unleashing paramilitary thugs on his political opponents, jailing and murdering them, including Dr Walter Rodney. Most dictators are known for their glaring contradictions. Yet their legacies must be looked at in totality, because international recognitions sometimes have the unintended consequences of forgetting their actions and are used to celebrate them.
Notwithstanding this, the people who argue that Burnham should be given this award because of his consistency in contributing to the anti-apartheid struggle are the same people who rightly oppose the Champion of the Earth and other international awards that are conferred upon former president Jagdeo. Mr Jagdeo is responsible for some of the worst excesses during his elected dictatorial rule. I agree that Mr Jagdeo’s domestic excesses should be considered when international organizations decide to give him awards. Mr Jadgeo’s apologist would argue that in his position as head of state he promoted and elevated Guyana’s status as an environmental leader. Should we therefore look at his contributions in isolation while we ignore all those murdered by armed gangs while he was in office, and African Guyanese marginalization? Should we not continually remind the world of this legacy?
Heads of states must be held responsible for their acts and these acts have to be viewed not in isolation but in totality.
The South African Presidential Advisory Council on National Orders revised its criteria for the granting of awards to reflect the spirit of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy where a culture of human rights prevails. As such, Burnham’s legacy does not merit this award. Nevertheless, it is true that in the past other dictators unfortunately received this award despite objections from groups within their respective countries. The difference is that Dr Rodney’s legacy is popular enough for the South African Government to stop, listen and reconsider. Hopefully, in the future South Africa is more careful when they choose recipients for the Oliver Tambo award. Furthermore, Guyanese should be extremely proud of the international recognition that Dr Walter Rodney still maintains for his fight for non-racial, non-sexist and human rights ideals