Walter Rodney

Sign of the Times

Written: 1980
First Published: 1981
Source: Sign of the Times: A memorial booklet to commemorate our fallen teacher on the first anniversary of his death. Georgetown, Guyana: Working People's Alliance, 1981, 5-15
Transcription: Susan Campbell
Markup: Steve Palmer
Proofread: Unknown
Copyleft: Public domain



Brothers and Sisters, Hail! Hail! you have heard Brother Rupert Roopnaraine, you have seen him and you know that he is in fine form. (Applause) We want to let you know that Brother Omawale is also here with us, and he is also in fine form. As the brother in the street would say, I man Ire, I man dread, which simply means that whatever pressures may be coming down we are determined to resist. Our will to struggle has not in any way been lessened; on the contrary, today we feel stronger than ever, we feel more confident than ever, not simply in our own ability and capacity, because that would be incorrect. We feel more confident because of the demonstrated ability and capacity of the people as a whole. (Applause)


The People's Will to Struggle

There are many ways, some of them big and some of them small, in which our people continue to demonstrate their ability. I will give but two small examples. The first is to let you know that whatever happens our people manage to maintain their sense of humour as a barge, as a weapon, against the oppressor. And I can assure you that there is very little that the oppressor can do when you use your very humour and wit as a weapon against them. A simple example, you may have heard that a number of brothers and this sister in New Amsterdam were arrested and charged with putting up a poster. Well, the fact of the matter is simply this: that the individuals concerned were engaged in an activity and apparently when they looked at a certain structure, which was a public convenience recently built, someone decided that this public convenience should be immediately renamed Burnham's Palace. (Laughter) The enemy cannot cope with that.


I can to give you another kind of example, a much more serious example[.] It relates to our Brother Edward Dublin, because many of you in Georgetown would not know that brother, who was executed by a section of the police carrying out the orders of this regime, for political reasons. Now normally when a brother falls in the struggle, there are some political movements which try to suggest that he was a saint, that he was a perfect human being, that he was always an angel from the time of his birth. We have thought to suggest nothing of the kind. What we do know is that Brother Edward Dublin was what you would call a 'street force'[,] a brother who had been kicked out of the work force at Linden. And when you get kicked out of the work force the only force you can join is the street force. So the brother was on the street force, and what was important while he was hustling a living was that he managed to acquire a certain political awareness, decided that is [it] wasn't worth the while getting into petty crime and getting into conflict with the police. He decided that he would never again lend his services to be bought off as a mercenary and a thug by the regime. And because this brother took that stand, he became a threat to the PNC (Peoples National Congress) and the ruling class and their representatives in the Wismar/McKenzie area, and he was executed. What I am trying to say is simply this: The revolution is made by ordinary people, not by angels, made by people from all walks of life, and more particularly by the working class who are in the majority. And it is a sign of the times, a sign of the power of revolutionary transformation, when a street force member is developed into a fighting cadre in a political movement. (Applause)


In many ways, Brother Rupert Roopnaraine, Brother Omawale and myself owe to you, the Guyanese people, a word of thanks. The Working People's Alliance as an organisation, all the members, owe to you a word of thanks for the immense solidarity and support which is developing, which continues to develop in this period. But while offering this word of thanks, we also want to make it clear that the solidarity which we have seen is itself an indication that people are struggling for their own rights. These are times, many times, when a people decide to identify with a cause, not simply because they feel the individual, the group or the cause requires support, but because they calculate, correctly, that that is the method by which they would advance their own interest at a particular point in time. This is not new in the history of this country. I was reflecting myself, through a certain familiarity with some aspects of our own history in this country, and I recalled the names of two Guyanese: they may not be known to you but I will leave their names in your memory after tonight.


One of them was named John Rohlehr, and for those of you who know this country that is the name that tends to be associated with Berbice -so he came from Berbice. He was a Black Guyanese, and in the late 1880's John Rohlehr returned to this country as a qualified medical practitioner, the first Black Guyanese to demand to be employed by the colonial medical service. As you would expect, he was discriminated against, and initially the colonial medical service said no, they would not employ Dr. John Rohlehr. The mass of the people of this country, from one end to another, carried out a tremendous campaign on his behalf until, ultimately, special enabling legislation had to be passed to allow him to practice. But what was important is that when they struggled for and behind John Rohlehr, they were also struggling for their own right. And it is a good thing that subsequently he also participated in the movement for the provision of dispensaries and hospitals for the mass of poor people in this country. (Applause)


And I want to recall in the same breath the name of a Guyanese to the name of Louis DeSouza; you needn't know where he came from to recognise that he was a Guyanese of Portuguese origin, one of the first Portuguese to take some active part in the public life of this country. Louis DeSouza was a barrister, a fearless barrister, who went into the colonial courts and challenged corruption; and because he challenged corruption from the top down, beginning with the Chief Justice, he was brought up on a charge of contempt of court and he was jailed. And when DeSouza was jailed, and even when his trial was going on, the mass of the people of Georgetown invaded the courtroom. They had a hard time holding back the ordinary people because they could get over the hurdle that he was Portuguese, this didn't bother them even though there were many Portuguese businessmen whom they might consider as exploiters. Nevertheless, the ordinary people of this country rallied behind Louis DeSouza; he was one of the most popular men in this country because when he challenged the corruption of the Chief Justice and the courts he was really striking a blow which they themselves wished to strike. And by the same token, today, when we speak of human rights and the violation of rights of particular individuals, we are really expressing the question of the basic right of the majority of the people.


The New Constitution And The Self Proclaimed Monarch

The Working People's Alliance has prepared a certain display, a certain visual display, which is an attempt to make clear the connection between one's constitutional rights and [the] fact of whether one eats or does not eat, or the factor indeed of whether one drinks or does not drink milk. And this poster which we have is a reference to Shahabadeen's Constitution, which we sometimes call Shahab's Constitution, better known as the Paramount Constitution. But what our brothers and sisters did was to prepare a poster which shows you a new trade mark: Shahab's Ideal Evaporated Constitution. (Applause) And this constitution is a special constitution in which human rights are subtracted. Now you see the point of the poster is to let you understand that no milk and no constitution are not two separate things. You can't walk down the road grumbling about no milk and forget the fact that we do not have a free constitution; the two things are part and parcel of the same. That is the message!


Brother Roopnaraine spoke about the way in which the rulers in this country have a capacity to impose the worse hardship on people and then turn around and make it appear as through they are doing you a tremendous favour; so that when they ban milk they ask you to clap your hands and cheer that they have achieved the world's first Guyana banned milk way. (Laughter) This is the kind of absurdities to which they reduce us. On another occasion I had cause to refer to the same phenomenon in very crude language; I did so deliberately and I have to repeat it because the situation warrants the crudity. I said that what the rulers do is to shit and piss on us, and they tell us we must call it perfume. (Prolonged laughter)


I want to speak a while about the constitution which you have not seen; Brother Eusi Kwayana mentioned that fact. Now that in itself is one of the most important facts that you must consider. What is a constitution, apart from being a piece of paper? It is a document which supposedly represents the fundamental law of the country; everything else which is in the statute bodies and the law books depend upon the constitution. That is the basis of our entire legal life.


Of course the constitution has some confusing language, suggesting that they are responsible to parliament. But how can the assistant to the president be responsible to anybody but the President? If you are his assistant you are responsible to him, that is the nature of our constitution. And how does a man come to wield these tremendous powers? Supposing we were to say, the constitution argues that if he was to win a majority, a large majority of popular support, he should enjoy these powers. But that is not so. First of all King Kong himself will never face the electorate. The constitution simply says that the present Prime Minister, on the day appointed for the new constitution to come into effect, shall assume office as President as though he was elected thereto, as though he were elected. So the reign shall begin automatically. For some future president it is said that his party should win an election on the List Proportional System. And if his party wins, then his party can automatically make him president. But there is no provision for this very powerful, this immensely powerful individual, to be chosen directly by the Guyanese people. Now there are two questions we have to consider; the first is that it is clearly a trick to put the particular individual into power. But the second question, which is equally important, is that no individual, whoever, should have that kind of power and should be put into office in such a trivial way. No individual should have absolute power in any State; and it really is a situation of absolute power which the constitution is seeking to give the so-called Executive President.


I will give a final illustration of that power by letting you know how the people can get rid of this President, or how they can try to get rid of the reign of the President. There is a very complicated procedure by which those in power in the parliament wish to try and remove the President because they think he has committed some gross criminal act or something of the sort, they have to go through a number of stages to see if they can remove him. First of all, a notice has to be given to the Speaker, signed by no less than one-half of all the elected members of the assembly, alleging that the President has committed a violation of the constitution. And then, after a number of other steps, this motion is put to the National Assembly, but the National Assembly cannot debate it immediately. They will go ahead to appoint the Chancellor -I have to go over this rather quickly -but ultimately the Chancellor will appoint a tribunal who will consider whether the allegations are justified. And if this tribunal, which will be headed by some mythical independent Chancellor of the Judiciary - just like the Jonestown Inquiry was headed by a mythically independent Chancellor of the Judiciary who subsequently said he did not want to hear anything about Jonestown[1] - we will have a tribunal which will decide whether it is justified that this President should be removed. And if the tribunal, by chance, should say that he should be removed they can go back to the Assembly and the Assembly can vote, by a three quarters majority, that the President should be removed. Now if all of this happens, the President will have to resign within three days, unless, and this is it, he must resign in three days unless before that time he himself dissolves the parliament. (Disturbed Laughter)


Now, in any nation in the world the process of making a constitution is one of the most fundamental political processes. You have to engage in debate, you have to engage in discussion, you have to present the facts, you have to bring in all manner of groups to ensure that it is clearly a public discussion. Yet we can go ahead in this country, the rulers are threatening to impose a constitution on us and the vast majority of the Guyanese people have not even set eyes on this document. Now do you imagine they have things in there that they want you to see? That constitution is filled with a lot of perfume. (Laughter) It talks about the powers of the President. You know this constitution is mainly about a president; a man is going to become something called an Executive President. It is supposed to be a Republican Constitution. But in the New Nation, which is the organ of the People's National Congress (it is not a paper that is dedicated to bringing down the government), in the New Nation, in referring to the President under the new constitution they spoke about the reign of the President. In case you didn't get the point, the word reign is only associated with a monarchy, only a King reigns, a President is supposed to have a term of office. But a King reigns and the New Nation spoke about the reign of the King. That could only be one king they were speaking about -- the well known Kong. (Prolonged laughter)


Accountability of the President Under the New Constitution

I want to let you know, by reading, some of the provisions which King Kong has in his perfumed constitution. One of the things that he guarantees is what is called immunity. This is what the constitution says: "The holder of the office of President shall not be personally answerable to any courts for the performance of the functions of his office, or for any act done in the performance of those functions. And no proceedings, whether criminal or civil, shall be instituted against him in his personal capacity in respect thereto, either during his term of office or thereafter."Now that, in fact, is not as outrageous as it sounds, because it is qualified by saying, first that he shall not be prosecuted for acts done in his official capacity; and one can always argue that if he legally carried out certain duties then he should not be prosecuted. But then we go on to find that they speak about his personal functions, and they say as follows: "Whilst any person holds or performs the function of the office of president, no criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done, or omitted to be done by him, in his private capacity. And no criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued in respect of which relief is claimed against him for anything done or omitted to be done in his private capacity." This is the King speaking. If we were to go through that document and read it provision by provision, concentrating attention on the functions of the one who will reign, we will see, for example, that he has tremendous power of appointment. He appoints the Prime Minister, he appoints people called Vice-Ministers, he appoints Vice-Presidents and then Cabinet Ministers, he even appoints the leaders of the opposition. (Laughter) He appoints all of the legal hierarchy, and of course once he has appointed these individuals, the constitution actually describes them as his assistants (the Cabinet Ministers) because their function is to assist the president who will sit in the cabinet with them and over them.


Charges of Treason

You need to try and get hold of this document, you have to struggle to try and understand the kind of language it has; but it is promising you slavery, and therefore you have to try and understand so that you will be in a better position to resist that slavery. I do not want to go on very long on the constitution, because of course as always our time is limited. I want to take notice of an issue which is of major importance at the present time, and has already been referred to by most of the speakers, and that is the so-called treason charges which have been laid against certain Guyanese in the last day or two. We in the Working People's Alliance wish to draw your attention to the fact that the treason charges represent a new level in the attack against the Guyanese people. It is what you call an escalation of the attack against the Guyanese people. The attack has already been going on. The attack has taken many forms, one of which I will draw to your attention and that is the numerous searches which have taken place in the country of persons' private houses. Those people who live their own quiet lives may not realise that dozens upon dozens of persons in this community are being searched everyday, without a police warrant. The police simply have to turn up and say they are acting under the National Security Act, and they can search your premises at any time, day or night, without a warrant.


There is a special section of the police force - the death squad -which is primarily responsible for these searches and harassments. They have searched dozens upon dozens of people, some of them have been leading members of our party, some have not been. We have been searched personally, our families have been searched, rank and file members have been searched, their friends have been searched. There has been a literal frenzy of searching in this country, and in many ways it demonstrates that in spite of the so-called power of the King, there is a tremendous fear in the camp of the enemy. Because you have to be inspired by fear to be searching under every rock and blade of grass looking for some opposition. Clearly you believe that there is opposition under every blade of grass, under every rock, so you are searching. In this country we have the fantastic record of the Prime Minister's personal physician having been searched. This is what is known as paranoid behaviour. That means he has a preoccupation, his mind is benefit [beset] with the idea that someone is going to do for him. Why else should he be preoccupied with such searches. Now in spite of the fact that they have searched for arms and ammunition, they have generally found no arms and no ammunition. They have therefore concentrated on picking up Day Clean, and therefore, by their own definition, they have acclaimed Day Clean as a weapon in the struggle. (Applause) Whenever they see our literature they pick it up under the National Security Act governing arms and ammunition; so they are performing a service in telling you what to look for. More than that, with searching through papers, it is clear that the new strategy is to try and find out who are members of our party, who are members of groups politically opposed to the government; and in the process they are proceeding to identify any political opponent as someone who is committing treason. What is their objective in so doing? Their hope is to intimidate, their hope is to threaten. Their hope is to frighten persons by tell them, if you oppose this government, we will lock you up, we will beat you up[,] we will torture you, and ultimately we will hang you. That is the threat.


But many men and many women have faced that threat in this country and in the history of world society, and it has never been able to beat the spirit of mankind, it has never been able to beat back humanity. And I do not believe that it is remotely possible in this country that the enemies of the people can extinguish and put out the humanity which resides in us. On the contrary, we have to recognise that the treason charges, because are they are a new acceleration of violence against the people, must be met by a new determination to fight. (Applause)


We want to remind you of the last time, to the depth of my knowledge, that there was a treason trial in this country, that was when a certain Reverend John Smith, in the latter days of slavery, in the 1820's was charged for treason and he was executed in this country.[2] Why did they charge John Smith? He was a missionary; he went to preach to the slaves. Now he did not tell the slaves to revolt, that is quite incorrect. Many of the missionaries were telling the slaves to be peaceful, but in a certain sense the missionaries were revolutionary because they were preaching to the slaves and telling them that they were men and that they had souls. And if you were a slave, and you were a man and you had a soul, then in their own framework you couldn't be an animal, you couldn't be a thing. So that was revolutionary for that time. By speaking of freedom in the midst of slavery, John Smith was charged for treason, and you can draw the parallel. To speak of freedom in these days, the enemies of the people of Guyana are threatening to charge us with treason. But as Brother Clive (Thomas) has already said, it will not be enough to charge seven persons; they will have to charge the entire Guyanese population. (Applause) If they say it is treason to plot to overthrow the King, then we are all treasonable. (Shouts and Applause) You see, treason is an offence that was born in the period of feudal laws, when kings were defending their power, and treason really meant treason against the person of the king. You see how the ruling class in this country come back time and time again to the notion that they are royalty. They call themselves the Kabaka, a feudal, backward word. They talk about their reign, now they talk about treason. But we understand where they are going, what they do not understand is where we are going. (Shouts and Applause)


There are times when treason becomes a matter of con[c]ern. In modern times, during warfare, it is permissible to ensure that citizens of a country at war do not betray their own country, and in that context it is correct to speak about [t]reason. But while we are in peace-times, where is the treason? What is our army fighting against? Remember when we had a military levy, they said it was because we had border problems we needed to strengthen the army to protect our borders. But now you know that the army is permanently stationed in the coastland, to be brought to bear against the struggle of the sugar workers, to be brought to exercise right here at Bourda and around the city, against the people. Where is the war? The only war is war on the part of the vast majority of the working people and their allies against a handful of exploiters and would be exploiters. (Applause) And there is no room for treason in that war; we will be loyal to our own roots, we will be loyal to our own interests, and as I said, we will then all have to be deemed to have committed treason. More than that, and this is the final point, I wonder how on earth the government is so sensitive, so backward and stupid, that they do not understand the simplest thing. In the modern world when you speak of treason, the first country that comes to mind is South Africa; it is the only country in recent times that has conducted treason trials. The government of Guyana has put itself into the select company of the government of apartheid South Africa. This is the level of their doltishness, that they do not understand that the term treason is associating them with the most reprehensible regime in the world, the apartheid regime of South Africa. As of now Guyana and South Africa can walk hand in hand and tell the world that they are brutalising citizens to bring them up on the so-called charge of treason against the State.


You see, when you raise the charge of treason in the international community, the first question that people ask is not whether individuals were planning to overthrow the government or not; they don't ask that question. The first question they ask is what kind of government is it that will possibly cause persons to want to think of violently overthrowing it? That is the first question they ask. They ask how did that government come into power; they ask what kind of constitution they have; who respects the constitution. Does the government respect the constitution; do the citizens have rights; can the government be removed from power constitutionally? Those are the kinds of questions they ask. Now if we were to put ourselves in the position of the rulers of this country, I think we would be very ashamed to open up a hornet's nest and forget about (19)62 and (19)63 and (19)73 and (19)78; we shouldn't want people to be reminded of that, or the world; so we shouldn't want them to ask how we got to power. We shouldn't want them to ask how the people can remove us, because they themselves have already said that they will not be moved. There is no constitutional and legal way according to them, and they will never be moved. And they raise the question of treason; imagine, they raise the question of people training in arms, they say what six or seven persons are now being charged for is some conspiracy to train and carry out training. When we know that dozens and dozens, PNC thugs, House of Israel thugs, have been training illegally at Lou Creek all week.


When we know that weapons are circulating illegally, quite apart from the armed forces, these weapons are placed in the hands of political thugs. A government which does that is not a government which can afford to present itself to public scrutiny. But when they have dared to bring some brothers up on a charge of treason, they have brought themselves into international scrutiny, and the Working People's Alliance pledges that it will move to ensure that in every possible way and every international forum, this issue of treason trial in this country will receive the maximum exposure. (Applause) We do not have to have our members involved necessarily, we are certain whatever issues are raised around that treason trial we will have to be fundamentally sure about the rights and freedoms and aspirations of the Guyanese people. Whether the individuals conspired or did not conspire is another issue. I do not know whether they conspired to overthrow Chroudrimootoo on the West Coast. I do not know what it is supposed to be about, but what we know is that when the government has to move in that way they are not just speaking to people on the West Coast, they are speaking to people in Essequibo and in Wismar and on the East Bank and in the Black Bush Polder. And they are telling these people two things at the same time, they are saying if you rebel we are going to lock you up and beat you and torture you, and we are going to hang you. That is the threat. But you know they are say[ing] something else which they weren't intending to say; they are saying to the people of Blackbush: "Look, yuh know all you are not the only people opposed to us, they got some more on the West Coast". They are so concerned[,] so pissed off, that they are entering into conspiracy. And they the Blackbush people go say: "But boy is not we alone in this thing". You understand, the government is spreading the message by their very doltishness. They are spreading the word that rebellion and resistance is now spreading through the length and breadth of this country. (Applause)


They dare to speak about arms; they who supervised Jonestown dare to speak about who possess arms. We say we must combine a number of things. We have to combine the struggle against the unjust constitution - we have to combine the struggle to defend the standard of living; we have to combine the struggle for whatever elements of freedom and the press and the judiciary and so on might barely remain in this community. All of these things have to be combined into a single struggle. The enemy depends upon dividing us to lessen the power of the people. So as long as we understand that we can move forward. Never mind the brother who lies there (reference to someone in the crowd), he lies there and he is not in power. (Laughter and Applause) Let us concern ourselves with those who are behaving in that way and who are in power over us; he is in an unfortunate position.


The Struggle Must Continue

We want to make clear that we have to continue in whatever way possible, the struggle for certain rights. We are here tonight and in a sense it is a vindication, an affirmation of our right to have a public consultation. And yet you have to bear in mind that it is a right that you cannot afford to step back from. You have to continue to press for the right, because do not forget that in the past there were times when the meetings would have been disallowed; there were times when the times of the meetings have been changed. In other words, the government has really been trying to say that we do not have a right to meet here, we only have a privilege which the King can give us at the abundance of his power and mercy. And we have to continue to insist that it is ours by right. There is another reason why they give it. They give it, at times, to test the climate. If, for example, there were ten of us present here, the regime would be tremendously pleased. If we had a crowd that equalled their crowd they would be tremendously pleased; ten of us here would be just what they would like. The brother seems to have got that point, even he. (Laughter and sound of motorbike) Now on the other hand, when you turn out in your numbers the regime must recognize that they are after all facing the wrath of the people as a whole; and we have to remind them of that in many different ways.


So we say tonight in conclusion, bearing in mind the resolution which has already been passed, that we must understand that we are still locked in struggle, and we are reaffirming our commitment to struggle, and we are saying we are ready to proceed, we are moving forward, we are not intimidated, we recognize the pressures but we are far from bending under those pressures. (Prolonged Applause)


Peoples Power!!




[1] Footnote by transcriber S. Campbell:On 18 Nov. 1978, 913 people died by mass murder/suicide in northern Guyana, at Jonestown. One factor that had attracted Jim Jones to Guyana was its supposed 'socialism'. Rodney argued that "what occurred there was precisely an act of complicity through neglect on the part of both the U.S. and the Guyanese Governments"; "Will the world listen now? Dr. Walter Rodney: Recent interview by Margaret Arkhurst", Guyana Forum (June 1980), 3.

[2] Footnote by transcriber S. Campbell: Actually, after being convicted, Smith died in prison of tuberculosis; see Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).