ROAPE’s Chinedu Chukwudinma speaks to Anne Braithwaite about Walter Rodney’s assassination, and the activism of the Working People’s Alliance-Support Group in the UK. As a founding member of the group, Braithwaite explains that though Rodney was betrayed, then assassinated, his body destroyed and concerted efforts made to tarnish his record, people around the world continue to develop and build on his immense legacy.
You can read the first part of the interview HERE.
The Working People’s Alliance in Guyana became a political party at the height of strikes and mass protest against Burnham and the People’s National Congress in the summer and autumn of 1979, known as the civil rebellion. How did you and others feel about the civil rebellion and its impact on the working people whether African or Indian?
I think there was unity. Absolutely! I think that unity was what alarmed both can PNC and the PPP (People’s Progressive Party) because, in an incredibly short period of time, Rodney and the WPA had actually succeeded in uniting working people in Guyana. That is when Burnham and the PNC decided Rodney had to be permanently removed because cross-community unity undermined their whole foundation of political power.
When a doctor family friend who lived in London learned that I worked with the WPA Support Group, he summoned me, sat me down in his surgery and asked: “Does your mother know what you’re doing here?” I tried not to laugh and said, “Yes, I believe so.” He could no longer contain himself. He became totally exasperated with me, wagged his finger actually touching my forehead and said, “I’m warning you about those Indians child!” But that’s the kind of experience not uncommon to Guyanese working for grass roots power across the ethnic divide.
My other question is, you know, between the members of the WPA support group, did you have any political debates? If so, what were those debates about?
Absolutely! For example, one of the major early debates was on whether non-Guyanese people should be allowed as group members. I had to overcome my own nationalist limitations, then work to persuade others. Makini Campbell, an American and Horace Campbell, a Jamaican, among others, were founding members. But most members were of Guyanese heritage, an exciting microcosm of Guyana’s multi-ethnic possibilities. Other debates were around how we advocate for WPA in Guyana, which UK community, activist and political groups to collaborate with, and how, given their various ideological nuances.
I was working full time and also had a part-time job, yet I had a very full social life, with lots of politicking. Yet a good rave remained an agenda feature. One of the things the support group often did was to host combined events [cultural, rally, rave] at particular venues that were suitable, like the Covent Garden Africa Centre, Clapham Common Methodist church hall which was also the Queen other Moore Saturday school and the Abeng in Brixton. Turning political meetings into parties became a really good way of recruiting.
Walter Rodney was somebody who loved partying, and I was probably with him at parties than any other place. In parties those days, you’d have floor-to-ceiling speakers so, any conversation on the dance floor was impossible. We called parties where you hold your glass in one hand, nibbles in the other, and chat, English parties. We did not do English parties
I was told that Rodney and WPA did not address people by proclaiming their socialist ideology or using complex jargon and concept in Guyana. It seems like they always spoke to people in a language the people could understand.
An issue for me within the WPA Support Group was when others who would have studied various political theories and ideologies ask, have you read this or that? And I would say no. They might then reply with a smirk and say “You mean, you’ve not read The Wretched of the Earth you’ve not read this, you’ve not read that. You want to be an activist and you haven’t read these things!” And that used to irritate me so much that it made me less inclined to read that kind of stuff.
Rodney often said things that made me want to think, but I recall him using few ‘isms’ in public meetings or private discussions that I was part of, nor in my conversations with him. So, I did not feel put down by the way Rodney spoke or related in ideological terms. People in Guyana listened to him at public meetings were able to understand and tell you what Rodney had said. When I visited my village, people there like my grandmother, who had no discernible prior political interest, would say things that would make me think again, oh, she’s listening to Rodney. So yes, Rodney had a huge communication gift.
There were some ideological tensions in the Support Group, but I would mostly tune out of those. When it came to what to do next, I would re-engage. And when we had to write stuff, put out event leaflets etc., that was quite challenging for me to be clear and not use wrong terminology. I would always have others do it or check what I wrote.
So, if we come to the tragic moments when Walter Rodney was assassinated in June 1980. How did you feel when he passed? What did you and the Support Group do in the aftermath?
Of course, Rodney’s assassination is imprinted on my mind. The support group had only been going for a short while. I had accounting exams all that week, and finished on Friday 13 June 1980, with a wonderful celebration dinner with friends from Barbados who were honeymooning houseguests, it was an indulgent evening. The telephone woke me at about three am with the horrible news: Rodney was assassinated and his brother Donald seriously injured. The WPA Support Group convened an emergency meeting early that morning to plan action.
Rodney’s murder was a massive shock worldwide, and particularly frightening for those on the ground in Guyana. But anger and rage soon took over and intensified the Support Group’s work here. Many Guyanese, Caribbean people, radical activists would have said, “no, no, Burnham would not kill Rodney”. WPA supporters and others were attacked and killed before: Father Darke, Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin, but they won’t dare kill Rodney. There was all kinds of harassment and terrible things happening, but they were people who believed that Burnham would kill other people, but not Rodney. People who were supporters of Burnham and his PNC party saying “No, he won’t kill Rodney”. There was one particular person who couldn’t speak to me after the murder, because he was one of the people who swore loudly that they wouldn’t kill Rodney. I think very few PNC supporters believed that it was anything other than an assassination by the state, that was masterminded by Burnham. Although people found ways of making excuses or justifying it, there was never much doubt about who killed Rodney.
The WPA Support Group’s activities in England intensified. In 1982 when Princess Diana and Charles got married, Prime Minister Burnham came to the UK to attend the wedding and meet with the Guyanese community. The Support Group picketed the Grosvenor House Hotel meeting as attendees arrived, then circumvented security to enter and break up the meeting. That was an important and effective symbolic confrontation. On another occasion, Burnham was in London for Commonwealth heads of government meeting, I think. PNC supporters organised a huge meeting at Battersea Town Hall. That meeting too was picketed and we broke it up.
Wow! Really you broke up the meeting?
Oh we broke up many meetings! Anytime the PNC attempted public meetings that we heard about, especially when senior politicians or big names came from Guyana we planned for them. So, eventually they were restricted to small, semi-secret events. We also regularly picketed Guyana’s High Commission around repressive events in Guyana. Some Guyana high commissioners had a particularly difficult job at the time. Whenever they attempted any public appearances, we would challenge them and picket. I mean it was a normal part of what we did.
The WPA Support Group seems to have operated long after Rodney’s death and well into the 1980s…
One of the things that really helped to sustain our work here was that Senior WPA members from Guyana would often come to London for fundraising, academic or personal reasons. People like Joshua Ramsammy, Clive Thomas and Moses Bhagwan. Usually senior WPA men, Andaiye being the exception. After Rodney assassination Andaiye spent a couple years in London as WPA International Secretary. So, we had a reasonable flow of senior people back and forth. And of course, one would have meetings with them. Everyone in Guyana had [and still have] close family residing outside Guyana. Many who lived at subsistence levels in Guyana would travel, if only to buy goods abroad and resell them in Guyana. So, a lot of travel overseas was part of the ordinary Guyanese life. London was also quite an important hub for travelling to other places like Europe and North America.
On a tangential matter, Guyana’s emigration epidemic since the 1960s–believed to be the worst of the Caribbean–remains unaddressed.
When and why did the WPA Support group’s activities come to an end?
It was a slow petering out rather than a sudden stop. Andaiye was here, as I said, as international secretary for a couple of years. And we continued working, campaigning, fundraising. There were various campaigns that some of us worked with like the Justice for Walter Rodney campaign which Helena Kennedy and then Richard Hart chaired, also the Campaign Against Waste Dumping in Guyana (CAWDIG). Lots was going on.
The difficulty the Support Group had was that communication and information from the WPA had all but dried up after Andaiye’s return to Guyana. There was no email or internet in those days and telephone calls were very expensive. No materials, no Daycleans [the WPA newspaper]. With hindsight I recognised that Rodney’s death had dealt the party itself a fatal blow, and by the late 1980s it had ceased to be a mass party, or even a pressure group.
In the early 1990s when Clive Thomas was visiting London, some of us arranged a public meeting. Thomas wowed a packed Commonwealth Institute audience, talking about Burnham’s PNC government’s disgraceful plan to import toxic waste from the United States. An elite Guyanese friend of Guyana’s government had negotiated a lucrative deal with private U.S. companies which was being sold to the Guyanese as “… we can burn it to generate electricity and end blackouts forever”. Some people in Guyana were saying “Yeah, if it means no more blackouts, we want it.” Quite reminiscent of current oil and gas and other natural resource exploitation and environmental protection concerns. It was only by raising the alarm with information unearthed by Friends of the Earth, that Burnham’s government quietly dropped the plan.
At that time, I thought that that was like old Support Group times–a full house and a great meeting.
It seems that the WPA had lost its soul with Rodney’s murder. They were never able to rekindle Guyanese working people’s interest, nor engage with workers’ struggles on the ground. There were no WPA public meetings, no workers’ campaigns, no discussions, no party manifesto. A flurry of activity in 2005 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Rodney’s assassination took some overseas-based WPA associates to Guyana and produced some material.
In 2010 the WPA rump (mostly a tiny, old male elite) decided that the way to remain relevant was to join the PNC. Most of the earlier senior WPA women had left the party and were either doing social activist work in Guyana or had emigrated. That so-called coalition with the PNC [A Partnership for National Unity–was a coalition formed in 2011 and comprised the PNC and the WPA] was hard to believe. And the PNC has done what it has always done with previous coalition ‘partners’, namely isolate then destroy them.
In the UK, I think there are WPA-related documents, such as pamphlets, pages of Dayclean and press releases that came from the WPA Support Group, which have been stored at the London Metropolitan Archives and the George Padmore Institute. I wanted your opinion on what you think has been done so far to honour Walter Rodney’s legacy?
You find that people continue referencing Rodney and his work internationally, in every continent, in the world. I think to myself, this guy died at age 38 and continues to inspire. Yet he never held senior office anywhere, never held any lofty positions outside his family. That in itself is a huge legacy that he’s left, and that people can continue to recognise his work and his contribution all this time and that his work remains relevant in 2021. When I travelled to places like Malaysia, or Thailand or Japan, let alone Zimbabwe, essentially everywhere I go, you can meet people who knew Rodney or knew his work. I just found that really amazing.
In Guyana, the PNC, in assassinating him, removed his body. What they also attempted to do was to destroy his legacy, and they continue to try to do that. I think their position now is to say things like, “Oh, yes. You know, Rodney was very bright, but maybe a bit impetuous.” It depends on who they’re speaking to. If they think they’re speaking to intellectuals, they say, “his work was brilliant. But he didn’t understand working people and practical organising on the ground. The people weren’t ready.” To African nationalist they say, “but you know, he was trying to destroy a black man, a black leader.”
But I think Rodney’s legacy in Guyana is massive. It’s huge, because at least senior politicians are now acknowledging that there are ethnic issues in Guyana. In Guyana in 1972 Burnham’s PNC was saying “…there’s no race problem here in Guyana. Look, we have Indian friends in our party, too.” The PPP would do the same. But the leadership of these parties are still just thinking about how they can use their position at the top of the race-based parties to leverage state and resource power to enrich and glorify themselves and dole out patronage. It’s all about how the elites are going to get their hands on the ‘corn’. Rodney’s legacy exposed that deception.
In Rodney’s name we must continue to ask these questions: Is multi-ethnic organising, independent of the two ethnic-based parties that have comprehensively failed Guyanese for the last six decades possible? Or is Guyana doomed to decades more division and destruction?
What was your favourite moment in the WPA support group?
Moments that stick out in my mind are times when we challenged the PNC here in London. We broke up their meetings and faced them down to the extent where I think the PNC wouldn’t attempt to do too many big public things here, even when they were in office. President Granger [PNC President of Guyana from May 2015 to August 2020] only had one public meeting here, while he was president for the last for the previous five years. I don’t think they would have the nerve to do it, simply because there was too much opposition.
Everyone in Guyana feared Burnham. People in London would say to you, “I can’t picket because I’m on a scholarship. And my scholarship will get taken away.” Scholarships got taken away anyways, whether these people came to the pickets or not. But being able to go into meetings and challenge them to their face was to puncture that god-like image that the PNC ministers had. That meeting we disrupted in Battersea Town Hall in the 1980s was one of those meeting that people still remember.
Importantly ‘big man’ politics was effectively challenged and there remains the hope that youth will carry on the struggle.
Rodney was betrayed, his body destroyed, and concerted efforts made to tarnish his legacy. But I am most proud of the WPA-Support Group UK’s role in nurturing young community and scholar-activists to develop and build on Rodney’s immense legacy.
Anne Braithwaite is the co-chair and treasurer of the Walter Rodney Programme under the auspices of the Pluto Educational Trust (PET) in London.