By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, Feb. 28, 2020)
There is a local saying that goes something like this: “Blood is thicker than water, and politics makes for the thickest ties of all.” Simply put, it means that while people may enter and end family, religious and business relationships during a lifetime, the strongest bond they form is with a political party.
This is a phenomenal development considering that political parties are only two generations old having come into existence in SVG in 1950. We were told that the family, church and schools are the most critical institutions of socializations. It is from these centuries old institutions that we get our basic understanding of life.
So, what has happened? How is it that the political party, an institution that entered our lives about 70 years ago, has come to take such a dominant place in the collective psyche of our nation? What caused political parties to eclipse the family, church and school, and force them to give way or bend them into its liking?
To understand this development, which we have repeatedly lamented as being unfortunate, and which every Vincentian should endeavour to reverse, we must take a close look at our society and where it was in the first half of the 20th century.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines remains an underdeveloped, resource-starved country. It is a place where government has a major stranglehold over literally every aspect of life. Government is the single largest employer. The private sector remains small, and many of these businesses depend on government support and patronage to survive, prosper or make a profit.
Joshua’s People’s Political Party (PPP) emerged in the 1950s when the ruling planter class dominated the economy. It treated the majority population, which comprised persons of African ancestry, and whose parents, in the main were captured and brought here as enslaved Africans, as less than human. Our forebears did back- breaking work on plantations owned mainly by persons of European extraction.
It was Joshua who went to these rural plantations and fought for our parents and grand parents. It was Joshua who imbued them with what Rex Nettleford, the Jamaican intellectual and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies described as “somebodyness”. It was Joshua who taught them to be proud of who they were and to be dignified in what they do.
All this time they had family. They had the church too, but in the main the church taught them to trust and obey because this world was not their home. Paradise and eternal bliss in heaven awaited those who lived for Christ.
The St. Vincent Labour Party of Milton Cato emerged in 1956 mainly as a foil to the militancy of Joshua’s PPP.
It was a grouping of middle-class elements, the commercial and educated elite. On the political hunt, it sought to convince the black majority that Joshua’s PPP was too militant, and that Cato and his band of educated men will better serve them. While Cato’s Labour Party tinkered here and there with the economy, most of the people remained mired in poverty and mostly dependent on government.
By the time Mitchell’s NDP emerged in the 1970s following the demise of the Peoples Political Party, the contest for the hearts and minds of the people emerged in earnest. Cato’s Labour Party dominated from 1974 to 1984, and Mitchell from 1984 to 2001. Mitchell’s biggest stamp on the memory of the people was the purchase of estates from plantation owners and their distribution and/or occupation by villagers. The best example of this being “Freedom estate” in Lauders.
All these governments before sought to use political patronage to bind supporters. When a proper study is done, it will be demonstrated beyond doubt that no party was as effective as Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party in distributing goodies to supporters and the population at large. From lands to houses, university scholarships to jobs, help to the elderly and repairs to the homes of poor, plus the election year distribution of cement, lumber, galvanise and steel; none before did more to bind supporters to the leaders and the brand.
All of this happened at a time when there was a conscious effort on the part of all post-independence leaders to consciously bend, break or destroy civil society organization. In the 1980s, literally every village across this country had a community development organisation. These groups have mostly disappeared. Where they still exist, they are a shadow of their former selves.
The National Youth Council (NYC) was given a warning to depart. All too many union leaders know the party song much better than their organization’s constitution; churches are split down the middle because one side supports this or that political party or politician.
The saddest development of all is where family members no longer speak to each other because of political allegiance. In some cases, they curse and fight over this or that political issue or leader. We may leave church or union, refuse to talk to a family member, neighbour or friend, but come hell or high water, disrespect, neglect or abuse from our politicians, too often, too many of us declare that we love our party and will remain loyal until death.
Sadly, we have come to this because the political party has become the most important and dominant institution in our country. Supporters are not taught to question anything. Blind loyalty is cultivated. To interrogate power or authority is to invite the wrath of the leaders who send coded messages as to how supporters are to deal with ‘troublesome’ individuals and contrarians.
No one is encouraged to use their minds for independent investigations. The leader said it. I believe it; woe be onto you who challenge what the leaders say. We are encouraged to be angry at the messenger and disregard the message. We have now arrived at a murky place where narrow, partisan politics has triumphed over the best interest of the people. We need to untie the ties that bind and get to a place where our country stands supreme over self promotion.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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