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Is the practice of apartheid present in Guyana?

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Is the practice of apartheid present in Guyana?


Neville J. Bissember

Article I of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid declares that ‘apartheid is a crime against humanity and that inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination, as defined in article II of the Convention, are crimes violating the principles of international law…’

The Convention defines the crime of apartheid in Article II by comparing a number of examples to ‘…similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practiced in southern Africa’, which have the stated purpose of ‘…establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. It remains the case that the policy which prevailed in twentieth-century southern Africa, specifically South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), has always been the litmus test for the existence or otherwise of this despicable, degrading, and dehumanizing practice known as apartheid.

While Article II rightly includes in the definition of apartheid acts such as murder, inflicting serious bodily and mental harm, arbitrary arrest, and illegal imprisonment that are aimed at a racial group or groups, it also includes acts that are more policy-oriented, such as:

‘Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and

Any measures, including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof.

Furthermore, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines a crime against humanity by a number of acts ‘…when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack’. Apartheid is listed as one such crime and is characterized as ‘…inhumane acts …committed in an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed to maintain that regime’.

History.com would tell any social media junkie who is easily led down the path of sensationalism and race-baiting that apartheid, or “apartness” in the language of Afrikaans, was a system of legislation that upheld segregation against non-white citizens of South Africa. After the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, its all-white government immediately began enforcing existing policies of racial segregation. Under apartheid, nonwhite South Africans – a majority of the population – were forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities. Contact between the two groups was limited. Despite strong and consistent opposition to apartheid within and outside of South Africa, its laws remained in effect for 50 years. In 1991, the government of President F.W. de Klerk began to repeal most of the legislation that provided the basis for apartheid.

By 1950, the government had banned marriages between whites and people of other races and prohibited sexual relations between Black and white South Africans. The Population Registration Act of 1950 provided the basic framework for apartheid by classifying all South Africans by race, including Bantu (Black Africans), Coloured (mixed race), and white.

As an aside, let me call out the Guyana Police Force for still insisting that in this 21st century, per their “protocols’’, someone making a report at a station is obliged to state their race! Granted that in cases of describing a missing person or a suspect, such information may be relevant, but apart from the name, address, and contact information of the person making the report, their race and even their age is of absolutely no consequence to the arrest and/or eventual prosecution of an offender, save and except in cases of say, the rape of a minor: Stuckinthepast.com!

Continuing, a series of Land Acts set aside more than 80 percent of the country’s land for the white minority and “pass laws” required non-whites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas. To limit contact between the races, the government established separate public facilities for whites and non-whites, limited the activity of nonwhite labor unions and denied non-white participation in national government.

In Guyana, there is no comparable policy, whether legislative or otherwise, to institutionalize any of the acts listed above in the various categorizations of apartheid, e.g., separate land reserves and ghettos, prohibition of mixed marriages or sexual relations between races, limiting access to public spaces like hotels, restaurants, and malls or public washrooms, based on race.

To the contrary, Guyana is Party to various International Human Rights Conventions, including the 1973 Apartheid Convention cited earlier. Protection of a number of fundamental rights is also available under the Guyana Constitution, and more recently, legislation has been enacted on discrimination and hate speech, incitement, and other contentious acts.

The foregoing information on the internationally recognized crime of apartheid, which is in the public domain and creates a stark contrast when juxtaposed with the local situation, has not prevented various commentators from seeking to cast that awful specter associated with the practice across the racially charged demographics of Guyana. Indeed images of houses being bulldozed in the predominantly Afro-Guyanese Mocha area to make way for road construction and developmental work, notwithstanding previous notifications and advisories, have unfortunately conjured up memories of Soweto and incredulously led one critic to label Guyana “the bruk down capital of the world.”  However, that is where the similarity if at all, begins and ends.

Constitutional protection in Guyana against deprivation of property is provided in Article 142(1) as follows: ‘No property of any description shall be compulsorily taken possession of, and no interest in or right over property of any description shall be compulsorily acquired, except by or under the authority of a written law and where provision applying to that taking of possession or acquisition is made by a written law requiring the prompt payment of adequate compensation.’  In other words, the State has the authority to compulsorily acquire lands for public purposes such as road building, as is the case in Mocha, provided that compensation that is prompt, adequate, and effective is paid to those dispossessed. In the US, this is referred to as eminent domain.

 Whether by coincidence or contrivance, “People memory in Guyana short!”: in 1966, when newly-independent Guyana launched its development thrust, the government announced plans to construct the West Bank Demerara Highway, which would require the compulsory acquisition of property (sound familiar, if you were to fast forward to the current Mocha situation?). A landowner, Ms. Olive Jaundoo, fearing that she would lose her Constitutional protection and be deprived of her agricultural lands and a sand pit, approached the courts for redress, thereby writing independent Guyana into the pages of Caribbean jurisprudence in the (in)famous case of Jaundoo v. the Attorney General of Guyana.

By the time the case reached the Privy Council five years later in 1971, this is what Their Lordships had to say: ‘The construction of the new road upon the Land has long since been completed. Whether or not this was in contravention of the Landowner’s fundamental rights under the Constitution has not yet even been considered by the High Court of Guyana or by the Court of Appeal. The only matters which have been so far considered are two questions of procedure’. So much for prompt adequate and effective compensation!

In fact, in a feat of judicial dexterity, to which Justice P. A. Cummings dissented, the court fiddled while Nero burned, pontificating on nice procedural issues of the manner in which the plaintiff should have approached the Court – whether by Writ of Summons or Notice of Motion – and Mrs. Jaundoo lost her property. So those who scream from the top of their voices now about apartheid and “brukking down” and constitutional protection, in an effort to work their supporters up into a frenzy, should pause to reflect on from whence we in Guyana cometh, as regards compulsory acquisition of property, particularly for the purpose of road building.

In a separate but not unrelated instance, criticism has been recently lobbed in the direction of Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, for devaluing the role of Forbes Burnham in the Southern African liberation struggle. To his supporters and to those among us who are instigators of apartheid-mania, I urge them to do some deep introspection: from the first-hand accounts of colleagues in the UN who fought in those liberation struggles before joining the South African and Zimbabwean Foreign Services, I estimate that a similar disservice is being done here by devaluing the epic achievements against the oppressors when spurious claims are made by comparison about apartheid in Guyana. As the brother of a late member of the Officer Corps of the Guyana Defence Force who played his role in Guyana’s material support during that period, I say, Shame on Them!

In so far as it is reprehensible and incongruous for supporters of a political party in a West Indian territory, which championed the cause of the Southern African liberation movements, to be trivializing those struggles by comparing them to occurrences of lawful compulsory acquisition of land, it is equally the case when a near-extinct political party, fighting to be relevant, could be susceptible to the charge of sowing the seeds of disunity and racial strife. From being a Party that practiced big-tent, democratic and unifying politics, whose senior leadership comprised both Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese who were focused on removing Forbes Burnham from power, that Party metamorphosed into a coalition partner with its age-old rival, the PNC, even lending support to some of the latter’s 2020 election shenanigans, which it had devoutly opposed during the last century and early 21st century. To now seek to pit Afro-Guyanese civilians and uniformed ranks against a predominantly Indo-Guyanese government must have Walter turning in his grave! Again, it is apposite to reflect on from whence we cometh.

Another irresponsible allegation sometimes made here in loosely worded speech is the existence of ethnic cleansing. This term, which has been examined and categorized in international fora, finds definitions in the UN lexicon thus: “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” or “… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group”.

As is the case with apartheid, it cannot escape the notice of the local purveyors of racial doom that ethnic cleansing is usually the result of a centrally driven policy, but none such has ever been implemented in Guyanese society. So, just as how, if you wanted to see apartheid, you had to look at race relations in South Africa between Whites and Blacks before 1994, so too, with ethnic cleansing, you cannot look beyond the brutality and barbarism that occurred in the former Yugoslavia in 1991/92 between Serbs and Croats, or Rwanda and Burundi in 1994 between Hutu and Tutsi, to see anything approximating either despicable practice.

While the threshold for a policy of apartheid has never been met in Guyana, what remains to be said is that the Constitution in Article 149 protects from discrimination on the grounds of race. Although qualitatively racial discrimination needs to be distinguished from the abhorrent system of apartheid, the option of bringing a constitutional motion is always available to those who feel strongly that the current administration is disadvantaging them, be it in the award of contracts, employment, house lot allocation, treatment by the police and so on. This is so, provided that their case is evidence-based and well documented, and they can establish damage or loss of opportunity caused by such acts or omissions alleged to be discriminatory.

Those who preach the hate speech that characterizes apartheid should revisit its history, particularly the composition of the various Cabinets of Governments throughout 20th-century South Africa. For most of that period, the Cabinet consisted of only Whites, until in 1984, for the first time, President Pieter W. Botha included a Coloured and an Indian, but no Blacks.  In 1988, President Botha proposed for Blacks to be in Cabinet.  In 1992, Parliament vetoed a proposal of President F.W. de Klerk for Blacks to be included in Parliament. Two years later, the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela came to power, with Mandela becoming the first black President of South Africa. Ole people say, “time longer than twine.”

In reflecting on the largely homogeneous composition of the South African Parliament during the apartheid era, this has to be contextualized against the composition of the country’s broader population, which averaged 68% Black and 20% White, with the remainder being Coloureds and Asians. Hence the total disparity between the races as regards political office and population composition is patent.

In contrast, it should be pointed out that, besides the fact that the composition of Guyana’s population is much more evenly distributed between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese, there has never in Guyana been a post-independence Cabinet, under any administration, which was composed of persons of only one race. As with the previous government’s Cabinet, the Cabinet of President Ali is composed of persons of African, Amerindian, Indian, Portuguese, and mixed heritage – diverse and inclusive. Denial of access to political power, or even the right to vote, was one of the infamous hallmarks of the apartheid system, which is not the case in Guyana.

One can conclude that as the threshold for the existence of a policy of apartheid has never been met in Guyana, references and analogies, and comparisons to it as regards what is happening in Guyana are good political fodder for certain political bases, but nothing more.  Some may argue that this conundrum has less to do with high-sounding theories and international law principles and more with desperate race-baiting and grassroots politics on the ground in this highly charged political environment that was bequeathed to us by our colonizers.

Nevertheless, this nonsensical and misleading talk of apartheid in Guyana should cease, and we – both the Government and the Opposition – should get on with the business of running the country, through the use of creative conflict resolution strategies and the recalibration of the vision of nation-building and development, by putting flesh on the bones of slogans like Social Cohesion and One Guyana.

Oh yes, and a lil more hand-shaking and less “cussing down” and shouting across the divide at each other instead of holding civil and principled exchanges would go a long way too…

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