Forbes Burnham died in 1985. That was twenty-eight years ago.
The Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo (OCOT) is the highest award that can be given by South Africa to non-nationals. It was created in 2002, eight years after White-majority rule ended in that country.
It took the South African government more than ten years to decide to honour Forbes Burnham for his contribution to the liberation of South Africa. Then they decided to pullback this award. Why?
That is for the South African government to state. It is believed, however, that the decision not to honour Forbes Burnham earlier and the decision to pull back the recent decision to grant him the gold standard of the OCOT has to do with the assassination of Walter Rodney.
Walter Rodney was murdered five years before Burnham died. That was thirty-three years ago.
While many Guyanese may not be aware of Walter Rodney and what he stood for, in Africa, Walter Rodney is an iconic figure.
His death broke the hearts of the continent. It devastated Africa. He was in the forefront of the struggle for the liberation of Africa and, by the way, he is yet to be awarded the OCOT posthumously, by the South African people.
When he was assassinated in Guyana, the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela was at its high point. Rodney was in the forefront of the struggle for the release of Mandela.
When he died, Zimbabwe had just been granted its independence and they had invited Rodney, who was at the time facing charges in Guyana, to write their history. That was how respected he was on the African continent.
The treatment he got at the hands of the Burnham regime was resented by the people of Africa. Rodney had to smuggle himself out of Guyana in order to attend the celebrations to mark the independence of Zimbabwe.
One month after returning home, he was blown to smithereens in his homeland, after his party was told publicly that it leaders should make their wills because they had “awakened a sleeping giant who would not sleep until his enemies were crushed.”
In June 1980, the world mourned the passing of one of history’s most outstanding and revered intellectuals. With the passing of time and the withering away of his party, there may have been the temptation to believe that Rodney had become a footnote in history.
But that is far from the truth. Books are still being written about him. Clairmont Chung has just edited a new work entitled, Walter Rodney: A Promise of Revolution. Walter Rodney lives!
And the fact that he lives in the hearts of many Africans, means that it will always be difficult for Forbes Burnham to be honoured by the people of South Africa.
The lobby to recognize the contribution of Forbes Burnham to the liberation of South has been long and relentless. It finally seemed to have paid dividends this year when surprisingly, the South African government decided to award the former president of Guyana with the OCOT, gold standard and all.
That decision was quickly put on pause following protests by academics outside of Guyana who reminded the South African government of, amongst other things, the assassination of Walter Rodney.
The withdrawal of the award to Burnham has evoked strong sentiments amongst some who are now rallying to have this withdrawal rescinded.
That reaction, however, is not about honouring Burnham. Forbes Burnham died twenty-eight years ago. He is not around and whether he receives the award cannot mean anything to him. He is not around to receive it.
And he seems to have been forgotten in his own country. Each time the anniversary of his death comes around there is a poor turnout at the memorial that is usually held to observe his death anniversary.
Yet from the reaction of those who are protesting the rescinding of the decision to award him the OCOT, you would believe that Burnham’s memory still looms large in his own country.
So what explains this reaction, this strident demand that South Africa reverse itself? After all, is it not the prerogative of the South African government to decide who that country should give its national awards? Since when do Guyanese have the gumption to demand that South African give the award to Burnham?
If that country does not wish to any longer grant the award, why implore that they reverse themselves? Why are people so upset at a sovereign nation exercising its right to decide who to honour? How can that decision erase whatever contributions Burnham made to the liberation struggle?
So what is behind this campaign to force the South Africans to give Burnham the OCOT? Why is it that important that Burnham he honoured close to three decades after he died and after more than ten years after the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo was initiated.
The answers to those questions are more troubling than the decision to not go ahead with the award itself.
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