THE recent decision by the South Africa Government to confer on Guyana's late President Forbes Burnham its highest national honour designated for outstanding foreign citizens- — the Oliver Tambo Award (gold) — has drawn strong criticisms from two well-known Jamaican scholars and Pan-Africanists — Dr Rupert Lewis and Dr Horace Campbell.
Both have expressed shock and sadness in wondering aloud whether President Jacob Zuma's Administration had in effect posthumously rewarded the former Guyana head of state for the June 13, 1980 assassination of Walter Rodney, the internationally famous Guyanese historian and Pan-Africanist crusader for freedom and justice.
While professors Lewis and Campbell were agonising over this surprising "recognition" by South Africa, Burnham's eldest daughter, Roxanne Van West Charles, was heading a family delegation to South Africa to receive the Oliver Tambo Award, on behalf of her father, at a ceremonial event scheduled for yesterday.
Rodney, noted for his widely treasured scholarly examination of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was killed in his car from a bomb explosion, subsequently uncovered as the work of an officer of the Guyana Defence Force, Gregory Smith, who was secretly working as an agent of the then Burnham regime.
Smith died years later in nearby French Guiana to which he had fled following Rodney's assassination. Despite a long campaign for an independent inquiry, with international support, into the circumstances of Rodney's death, no such action was ever taken.
Horace Campbell, author of Reclaiming Zimbabwe (The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation), and Rupert Lewis, whose seminal work, Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought, would have had no problems in separately expressing, within days of each other, their grievous disappointment over the Oliver Tambo Award to Burnham.
In a column last week for 1804CaribVoices (Pan-Caribbean Voices for Integration and Social Justice) online, Campbell noted that Oliver Tambo "was unstinting and unrelenting in his opposition to all forms of oppression". Consequently, he firmly declared:
"It is my view that the granting of this posthumous award will demean the memory of Oliver Tambo. If there are still progressive forces within the African National Congress (ANC) they should rescind this award so that this (scheduled April 27) ceremony will instead be one that honours the memory of Walter Rodney..."
Such a development was virtually impossible to expect. But in his own response that came as this column was being written, Lewis was quite clear in observing:
"Anyone who witnessed Forbes Burnham on television gloating about the killing of Walter Rodney by a bomb nearly 30 years ago would be shocked to learn that South Africa is to posthumously reward him with the Oliver Tambo Award...
"It is not that Burnham did not contribute to the anti-apartheid cause, but unlike other Caribbean political leaders of the time he eliminated individuals in the political opposition within Guyana. Rodney was the best known of these opposition activists and the most prominent Pan-Africanist in the 1970s..."
The historian Lewis further recalled that while at the University of Dar es Salaam (in Tanzania) from 1966 (year of Guyana's independence) until the early 1970s, Rodney "was actively engaged in the debates and educational programmes of several of the Southern African liberation movements, including the ANC".
Therefore, in Lewis' reasoning, this posthumous Oliver Tambo Award "can only help to cover up Burnham's assassination of Walter Rodney".
It is quite relevant to record the viewpoint of a senior researcher for the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, Tula Dlamini, who has been following reactions to the award to Burnham, who died on August 6, 1985.
As part of his own contribution on 1804CaribVoices in relation to the controversy, Dlamini said that "regardless of the merits or demerits of the positions taken against the award, it is within reason to support those who are calling for a serious debate on this issue...
"For example," he contends, "the South Africa Government must explain what rationale is there for the honour to be given to Burnham when it has never been given to Julius Nyerere (Tanzania's first president who died in October 1999)."