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50 years ago- Walter Rodney remembered (part 3)


In the latter part of the 1970s Guyana had been experiencing rough times. 1978 and 1979 were horrible years. Do you recall the Jonestown ritual that involved the suicide murder of about 900 Americans? Many shady characters were admitted to the country. The House of Israel, headed by a black American preacher wanted by the police in the US, who called himself Rabbi Washington, was one of the thugs who brutalized and murdered opponents of the political regime. Burnham had total control. He held on strongly to his Afro- Guyanese base having co-opted the African middle class and small elements of the Indo-Guyanese community.

In 1978, the year of Jonestown, a referendum on a Constitutional amendment bill that was opposed and boycotted by key sectors of the public, was declared passed with 97.4 per cent vote. Guyanese were afraid to voice any public criticism of the deterioration of their country. Rodney became part of the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) that included African and Indo-Guyanese members and had rotating leadership. His class analysis of Guyanese society convinced him of the need to bring elements of the two ethnic divisions together in an atmosphere marked by racial politics. Burnham, with his hold on his African base, was always confident of political success, but then Rodney entered the scene and began to eat away at his Afro-Guyanese hold.

Although there was rotating/collective leadership in the WPA, the public saw Rodney as the real leader. Here was someone publicly criticising and openly challenging the maximum leader. His ability to speak to the people in a language that they understood singled him out. According to one account, at a public meeting he got tremendous applause when he declared that an old woman told him that “Burnham mek Satan cry”. For most of his time he did not see himself as a political leader seeking power. He was about political education and facilitating a social movement. He was working on his history of the Guyanese working people, while doing his political work. 

1979 was a climatic year. The burning of a building housing the general secretary of the ruling party was placed at the hands of the WPA leadership. Rodney was arrested on a number of occasions, was constantly followed, and his house searched. At a gathering at his house he showed us through his bedroom window, a number of parked police vehicles keeping watch. The repression did not only affect the WPA, others were brutalised and murdered. One that stands out was the Jesuit priest Father Bernard Darke, a photographer for the Catholic Standard paper. Despite having his passport taken away, Rodney, in early 1980, went through French Guyana to Europe and Tanzania and then on to the Zimbabwe independence celebrations. Burnham who was present was utterly shocked.

Rodney was Burnham’s biggest threat. Not only was he eating away at his African hold, but he was, of all unimaginable things, bringing Blacks and Indians together. One of Rodney’s weaknesses was his refusal to ask anyone to do anything that he would not have done himself. He befriended Gregory Smith, an ex-officer of the Guyanese defence force with electronic expertise, who supplied him with a walkie-talkie that he decided to personally check out. It had a hidden bomb, and during the trial of this instrument Rodney met his death on June 13, 1980. The 30,000 plus persons who joined his funeral procession tells us something about the impact he had.

The reaction was widespread, even in the US, Britain, Tanzania, Germany, and Nigeria. He was no egomaniac. He hated authoritarianism and defended democracy; was critical of the Grenadian revolution for not holding elections and for the banning of the Torchlight newspaper. Rodney died at age 38, at a time when the region was crying out for a voice like his. He was a remarkable man indeed.