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Raffique Shah


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April 04, 2004
By Raffique Shah

"THROUGHOUT history, whenever men have sought to oppose injustice, they have been exiled, jailed or even put to death. Some of the greatest men in history, especially in the Third World, have been imprisoned for fighting for the rights of their people. So what if I am jailed for fighting for my soldiers and my people? Men like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many others were jailed by our white colonial masters. I am imprisoned by black colonial masters. Right now, in apartheid South Africa, brother Nelson Mandela is serving a lifetime in jail. In racist USA, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, among others, face the brutality of white jails. In Rhodesia, millions of our brothers and sisters live in a country that can be considered a huge concentration camp. In Trinidad, we have 50 black soldiers being held in prison by an Afro-Saxon Ian Smith."

Those who know their history won't need to be told where this quote was taken from: it was part of my defence speech at the court martial that was staged-and I mean that literally-at City Hall in Port of Spain in 1971. Note well the names I called, all of them freedom fighters against one form of colonial oppression or other, and in the case of Mandela, apartheid. I was 25 years old when I delivered that speech, but coming from an era in which the struggle for freedom raged across the world (even in staid Europe, students were demonstrating in their tens of thousands in support of the oppressed), I had an acute sense of history.

For us, Mandela symbolised the struggle against apartheid in which thousands were brutally murdered by successive White regimes in South Africa. More than that, he was in jail, imprisoned for life, we were also in jail, so there was an affinity of sorts. For leading the mutiny I was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but I subsequently won my appeal and along with Rex Lassalle and scores of other soldiers, was freed after 27 months. Mandela would go on to spend 27 years on Robben Island.

Once more I draw on history to show how those who are today singing hosannas to Mandela, clinging to his coattail as if they had always supported the ANC and its struggle, are jokers of the Afro-Saxon mould who suddenly, even accidentally, found out that they were well, not white. I can't say black, because they take umbrage to that term. Worse, don't call them Africans although it's okay to call me Indian or to call Gerard Yetming Chinese. Like Christ's apostle Peter they would deny their ancestry not thrice, but a million times. They heaped scorn on advocates of Black Power.

Dr Eric Williams banned Trinidad-born Stokeley Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) from landing in this country. Ture was a son of this soil who was among the leaders fighting for the rights of Blacks in the USA. Dr Williams's government also banned all literature that contained the words "black" and "revolution". In fact, there was a famous joke about a student returning home with a copy of a book on the Industrial Revolution that was promptly seized from him by Customs. I myself had a book, Black Is, seized by an Indian Customs officer who was blacker than the ace of spades! Of course I couldn't resist telling him that to his face.

The Mandelites-come-lately are so mired in colonial mindsets, besides exposing their ignorance of what the man stands for, they all but bungled his visit to this country. When I heard Roy Augustus and Lester Forde defend the TTFF's decision to host a function for this freedom fighter at the Country Club, I almost puked. Because just as Mandela is a symbol of the struggle of Black people for equality and justice, that club symbolises rank discrimination against non-Whites. And don't tell me about how, for some years now, Blacks have been invited to functions there. If Forde and Augustus were able to grasp the measure of the man, they would not have even considered that venue. And the reason is simple. For its discrimination and humiliation of non-Whites, the owners of the Club, the Fernandes family, have never even bothered to apologise to the people they wronged.

But their ignorance runs deeper. It's true that Mandela is the man when one thinks of the struggle against apartheid. However, Mandela would himself tell you about hundreds of second rank leaders of that bitter war who died fighting for freedom. The name Steve Biko comes to mind, but he was only one. I recall the thousands in Soweto, most of them young Africans, who were bludgeoned to death by the racists. I think of Winnie Mandela, who, estranged though she may be from Nelson, stood like a giant-of-a-woman in defying the apartheid regime. I think, too, of Gandhi, who was there in the early days, but left to liberate his own country, India. In fact, I think of the many Indians who were (and remain) actively involved with the ANC, some of them later to become Cabinet ministers when that party won the first democratic elections.

Let us not distort history. Let us not teach our children half-truths. As it stands, they probably believe Mandela stood like one superman who "zapped" apartheid in one fell swoop, comic book-style. Also, he is being praised for his "peaceful fight for change". What rubbish! There was nothing peaceful about the change that was eventually forced on the apartheid regime. Mandela was jailed at a time when the armed struggle had just begun. It continued for many years, with lightly armed freedom fighters taking on the biggest military machine on the continent. That apartheid army was equipped with the best weapons that the USA and Britain, among other developed countries, supplied.

Apartheid did not collapse because of peaceful negotiations. The regime was forced to the bargaining table after Cuban troops, operating in Angola as its newly independent government battled against South African-backed "guerrillas", put a good and final beating on units of the South African military. While Black Afro-Saxons in power elsewhere took a hands-off position, some of them barely mouthing their opposition to apartheid, Fidel Castro committed the Cuban army to physically humble Pretoria's military machine. It's one reason why Mandela visited Cuba shortly after being released from prison. He also visited India, where the Congress Party government had long provided other support, like university scholarships, for the ANC.

One final question: when South Africa bid to host the 2006 World Cup back in 2000, what country did the ubiquitous Jack Warner support?

(I won't rest my case until next Sunday)