The conversation about Rodney’s death requires an arbiter to halt the cleavage’ says: Ulele Burnham
By Staff Writer
May 9, 2013
Public figures, their legacies, and of course attempts at memorialisation of such figures, always remain to a large extent beyond the reach of their families or others who wish to privilege their most favoured or favourable attributes.
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” So let it be with Burnham?
For the most part, I would have been content to accept Mark Anthony’s (and I don’t in this instance mean Mark Anthony Benschop) rhetorical wisdom. But this murky business of the Companions of Oliver Tambo Award has caused the “good” rattling to be exhumed from those bones to collide, forcefully, with the far more commonly rehearsed characterisation of Burnham as only, always and already, despotic and venal. It surprises me little that the South African government’s proposal to confer on my father a prestigious award for his contribution to the liberation of Southern Africa has unleashed salvos, ranging from the legitimate to the apocryphal. Many contend vigorously that the posthumous privilege should not be his and that such acclamation ought not to be even a small part of the way he is remembered.
Those who were alive, and alert, during the years of my father’s tenure as leader of Guyana are entitled to judge his impact on the body politic and the extent of his contribution to international struggles against structurally racist regimes. And they are also entitled to ask others who seek to honour him to consider what might have been ignoble or unhappy about his own regime (Apologies, posthumously, to Bob Marley and Haile Selassie.) Now, I might think, as I do, that some of those opposed to the award squandered the opportunity to add to the sum of informed historical record when they claim that he did nothing for African Liberation movements. Their objections are cheapened, I fear, by an implacable and wholesale contempt for him; the mainly unmediated rage steadfastly refusing to entertain the possibility that character is not indivisible, that context is everything.
Whereas it must be left to others to set straight the official historical record, I know that his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle was not nothing and that knowledge alone is, for me, accolade enough.
My plaintive point really, however, is this: There isn’t any bone in my (live) body that fails to recognise the right of the public to engage in reasoned debate about the function that state-sponsored awards can play in obscuring the misdeeds of political leaders; in undervaluing the lives, and the worth, of those who stood against them; in sanitising the annals of history. The arbiter in the necessary transnational conversation about the Companions of Oliver Tambo Award must, ultimately, be the South African government; a government upon which I intend my influence to continue to be a big fat zero. I was informed of the potential award possibly at the same time as other Guyanese came to learn of it, and am probably less well informed than many are about the reasons for its deferral.
It may be the business of others in the international community to prevail upon the South African government to grant or not to grant the award, but it is no business of mine.
There is, though, one aspect of the debate that has unfolded on which I do wish to comment, and comment publicly. I have learnt that the principal objection of those who have petitioned against the posthumous award being conferred on my father relates to his assumed role in the death of the acclaimed historian and activist, Walter Rodney. The body politic has been riven, for decades, by unresolved imputations that the government led by my father was responsible for Rodney’s death.
The conversation about Rodney’s death requires an arbiter to halt the cleavage; it requires a full, frank and formal public inquiry by as independent an international tribunal as can be convened. Then those dead, and alive, can properly be made to bear the true burden of responsibility they have been adjudged to owe.