Yesterday, April 4, 2015, Eusi Kwayana turned 90. It is difficult to properly analyze modern Guyanese politics without taking into consideration Eusi Kwayana’s wide ranging contributions. His political career has spanned the seven decades, which mirrors the period normally referred to as the modern phase of Guyanese and Caribbean politics. This letter pays tribute to Kwayana by offering an overview of his political life and work.
Eusi Kwayana, formerly Sydney King, was born in 1925 and has been involved in Guyana’s national politics since 1947. He has been referred to as the ‘Sage of Buxton,’ ‘Renaissance Man’ and ‘Guyana’s Gandhi,’ among other descriptions. He is multi-faceted – political activist, educator, writer, journalist, dramatist, folklorist and historian. But it is as a political activist that Kwayana has made his most telling contribution. He has become one of Guyana’s most distinguished political leaders. Ironically, he has also been one of the most controversial and misunderstood public personalities.
He entered the political arena as a supporter of Cheddi Jagan in his successful bid for a seat in the Legislative Council in 1947. He soon joined the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), a small left wing group that was the precursor to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the country’s first mass-based political party. He served as Assistant General Secretary of the PPP and Minister of Communication and Works in the PPP government following the party’s victory at the April 1953 elections. After British troops invaded Guyana and the constitution was suspended, Kwayana was among several PPP members placed in detention.
When, in 1955, the PPP split generally along ethnic lines, Kwayana was one of a small group of Africans that remained with the Cheddi Jagan faction. However, he left the Jagan faction in 1956 and joined the newly-formed People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham and served as General Secretary and editor of the party’s organ, New Nation until he was expelled from the party in 1961 for publicly engaging the ethnic problem.
He co-founded in 1961 the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE), which was dedicated primarily to raising cultural consciousness among African Guyanese. As ethnic insecurity by both groups became more manifest, Kwayana, on behalf of ASRE, proposed a power-sharing arrangement or “joint premiership” between the leaders of the two ethnic parties with partition of the country into three zones – African, Indian and Mixed – as a last resort.
Both leaders rejected the proposal. ASRE was disbanded a year later, amidst fears of dividing the African-Guyanese community and the country descended into open ethnic conflict that lasted from 1961 to 1964.
Amidst the ethnic violence, Kwayana, in 1964, co-founded the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), which, like ASRE, committed itself to the promotion of African pride, dignity, and culture among African-Guyanese. He served as Coordinating Elder of ASCRIA and changed his name to Eusi Kwayana, which, in Swahili, means Black Man of Guyana.
Although he never rejoined the PNC he supported the party, which rose to power in 1964 as part of a coalition with another small party, the United Force (UF). He held several influential positions in the government – head of the National Land Settlement Committee; chairman of the Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC); chairman of the Cooperative Insurance Committee; and chairman of a committee charged with converting the Guyana Cooperative Credit Society into a Cooperative Bank.
In 1971 he broke with the PNC over the issue of government corruption and became one of its severest critics. In the process Kwayana and ASCRIA began to develop relations with other anti-government organizations which in 1974 merged into the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). He has been a 1eading member of the party and was its presidential candidate in 1985 and parliamentarian in the years 1986-90. Critically, during this period he directly and indirectly mentored an entire group of political activists who have continued to serve in public life in Guyana and beyond.
There are five aspects of Kwayana’s political life that stand out. First, for him politics is not a path to power but a medium for service and collective liberation. Second, while he has held strong ideological positions, he has not been dogmatic.
He preferred to be guided by fairness rather than political correctness. Third, although he has held leadership positions in three major political parties, he has never sought the top position. He turned down such positions several times. Fourth, he is perhaps the only major Caribbean politician who has publicly admitted to mistakes on important issues. Fifth, his political practice has been grounded in political morality.
An important aspect of Kwayana’s political life has been his ability to influence politics outside of formal political office. There are two major factors that contributed to this. First, he has taken on issues of fairness and justice, even when it is not politically correct to do so. In this regard, his concern is always whether it is fair or just. Second, he has been fiercely independent; his bottom line has always been what is best for the people and the country rather than for the party or leader.
This independent thought and action have contributed to carving out an independent or third space in a political process that is generally dominated by duality. His independence was manifested not only by actions outside of the two major parties but when he functioned inside the parties. This independent or third space accommodated ASCRIA in the 1960s, the WPA from the 1970s and more recent organizations such as the Alliance for Change (AFC). The importance of this independent space is its ability to constantly provide a critique of the dominant tendencies that has had both radicalizing and democratizing effect on the political process. Walter Rodney’s direct impact on the politics of the 1970s was facilitated by this third space.
Although Kwayana functioned in the executive branch for just 133 days and in the legislature for a little over five years, he has had a major impact on every major political episode in Guyana. Kwayana has been a strong believer in organization and movements. From his entry into national life in the late 1940s to the present he has always belonged to at least one major national organization. He is the only major political leader in Guyana to play leading roles in the three defining movements of the last seven decades – the Independence, Black Power and Pro-Democracy movements.
Another important aspect of Kwayana’s political praxis is his engagement of the concrete. Although he was ideologically grounded in the left wing of Caribbean politics, he avoided the dogmatism that has sometimes immobilized his fellow travellers. Because his point of departure has always been the concrete conditions, he drew lessons from them rather than imposing lessons on them. This in turn has contributed to Kwayana’s broad praxis which is sometimes projected as changes in his approach.
While Marxists generally avoided the issue of race and ethnicity, Kwayana did not. No public person since 1961 has written and spoken more on Guyana’s persistent ethnic problems than Kwayana. He was the first political leader to raise the issue of race as a central problem in the political process and offer a solution. Since then he has functioned simultaneously as the foremost messenger of African cultural pride and regeneration in Guyana and an advocate of multiracial working class solidarity and unity. He is as committed to the working class liberation as he is to African progress and freedom. This engagement of ethnicity and race in an ethnically divided country has earned him the status of both hero and villain. But in the final analysis, his political life reflects the persistent dilemma of race, ethnicity and class. Perhaps, more than any other political person of his generation, he has managed to synthesize the three.
Kwayana has a long trail of writings, beginning with his writings in the PPP’s Thunder in the early 1950s during which time he wrote many articles and editorials that did not carry his byline. He would later serve as editor of the PNC’s New Nation, ASCRIA’s ASCRIA Drums and WPA’s Dayclean and Open Word. In addition to his journalistic writings, Kwayana has written many other academic and policy papers. Most of his writings have addressed the concrete issues of the particular time, but others have addressed broad issues such as race and ethnicity, governance and culture. He has also written the party songs of the PPP, PNC and WPA.
The finest human being
I end this overview of Kwayana’s work with a personal note. I have had the good fortune of working with and learning from some of the best intellectuals and political minds in Guyana. My experience as a member of the WPA for the last four decades has been the finest education in politics and public engagement. I love the WPA family undyingly. In all of this, the persistent example of Eusi Kwayana has been pivotal. He is the finest human being I have encountered in my life’s journey. Thanks Brother Eusi. Happy birthday.