By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 16, 2017
The Anti-Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, offers an excellent exhibition on the life of Nelson Mandela, the most recognizable person of the twenty-first century. On one of the walls there is a quotation that is attributed to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. It reads: “Good moral character is not something that we can achieve on our own. We need a culture that supports the condition under which self-love and friendship can flourish.”
Reading those words, I thought of Trinidad and Tobago immediately, the Global Peace Index Report of 2017 having named us the second most dangerous nation in the Caribbean with a global ranking of 67. I am not sure what we did or left undone to earn such ungodly notoriety. It is a frightening prospect to behold.
The problem is not money. Over the last decade over $1 trillion has flown through T&T’s coffers even though the national budget has dropped by $12.9 billion over the last two years. Our Prime Minister reminds us: “In 2014-2015 revenue stood at $57.3 billion and the following year (2015-2016), the first year the People’s National Movement assumed office, those revenues fell to $44.9 billion” (Guardian, July 12).
Meanwhile, our Prime Minister has begun another round of national discussions. He suggested that we start a conversation on how to fund our elections. The actual conversation ended up with a warning that the government may make additional layoffs in the public service and seek to restore confidence in the police service. He also asked if there should be another general election soon. Midway through the conversation, Mervyn McIntosh objected: “None of us sang the national anthem” (Express, July 13).
I cannot see how another election (or another round of layoffs) will change the downward spiral into which we have fallen. Our problem is one of quality (a people problem) rather than one of quantity (a money problem). It revolves around the absence of genuinely insightful leadership by any of the political parties. I am yet to hear one enlightening idea from the PNM or the UNC about how we can emerge from a situation in which our international reputation lowered each year.
The PNM, in my estimation, has reached a dead end in terms of its political thinking. No new ideas animate the bosoms of its leaders. Nothing new ever comes out of the mouths of our parliamentarians. Sometimes I am left with the impression that the blind are leading the enlightened whose reticence (and unflinching loyalty) prevent them from unmasking the shallowness of their representatives. I expect nothing from the UNC so I am seldom disappointed.
On Saturday, July 1, I visited the Slave Lodge in Cape Town, South Africa, that was built in 1679 to accommodate Africans who were taken from other parts of Africa by the Dutch East India Company to labor on public works and the company outposts. A caption on the wall reminds us that freedom isn’t free. It isn’t something handed down to a person. Each generation must learn and fight for it anew. “You need to defend it. The ideological struggle is on-going. There will always be people, individuals or groups who will want to reverse the gains attained by liberation.”
In his introduction to Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom, William Gumede wrote: “Someone who occupies a position of authority and holds and exercises power is not always necessarily a leader. Leadership is about the quality of an individual’s actions, behavior and vision. During the ‘dark times’ of apartheid and colonialism, the Mandela generation offered a kind of leadership that was apparent in the quality of their actions.”
Many South Africans, particularly Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters, believe Mandela sold them out during the peace negotiations. They believe he made too many concessions to the apartheid regime leaving whites in control of the major levers of the economy. They abhor (or are certainly skeptical of) the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Too many officials of the apartheid regime walked away scot-free without paying for their crimes against the non-white people of the society. While Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, accepts some of these criticisms, he preferred what he called “dynamic compromising,” a policy that emphasized peace rather than pure justice.
When I grew up in T&T we believed we could solve most of our problems if we put our heads together and worked collectively to build our society. We lived in what one might call a form of political and economic utopia. We read, we debated ideas; and our leaders, from the community level up, led by example. Through our labor we created a society in which, as Aristotle contended, self-love, friendship, and respect for one another flourished.
Over the years, we have drifted away from those values (Mandela called it “character”) that allow us to act as conscientious and responsible citizens. The vulgarity that passes for politics today leaves much to be desired. “Conversation with the Prime Minister” turns out to be nothing but a gripe session. Perhaps McIntosh’s comment about the non-playing of the national anthem best captures the national sentiment: “That was a disrespect.”