Sunday, 26 January 2014

What can People do?

Recently I attended a People’s Assembly meeting staged by the Barbados Labour Party at the St Leonard’s School. The Panel at the assembly, which consisted of three BLP personalities, social activist David Comissiong, and Nation editor Harold Hoyte, presented their perspectives. What was agreed by both partisan and nonpartisan presenters was that the current administration, for a number of reasons, was unfit to carry on with the governance of the country, and that also we, the Barbadian people, were in great danger of losing the Barbados we knew. At the end of the discussion, a lady moved by the presentations of those on the panel approached the mic. She enthusiastically asked,

“Tell me now, I hear everything you say, now what can I do, what we can do?

Waiting to respond was the leader of the opposition, Mia Amor Motley. Her answer to the lady was simple. “People have the power, and that has been proven, but it is only when they realize that they do, will anything change.” The lady nodded at the response and afterwards returned calmly to her seat. The matter however has never been that simple…

People’s participation in the political process has always been an issue in our island state, especially for those of us who are acutely aware of the situation. Today it can be seen as one of the main reasons for the chronic abuse of public office that has been observed during the last few administrations. Despite the many endemic problems with the way we’ve been governed (issues of transparency, accountability, fairness, mismanagement, lack of foresight/vision) Barbadians today are still reluctant or unable to take a stand or even care about the political realities of the country. This begs a question of why.

Answers of this question have touched some particular points. There is the idea firstly, which has been expressed by many a Barbadian, that most people hardly understand the magnitude or the particulars of what has been happening in the country (access to information).  Those who do, like the lady at the assembly, have no idea how to do anything about it. Some argue that people are so used to being excluded from the decision making and implementation process that they simply do not care or could not be bothered by a system they cannot change. Others point to our colonial past which created the most passive slave colony in the West Indies. It was said that the enslaved in Barbados maintained a very poor sense of rights. Excluded from the system, it was (and is) a society built on fear and violence still suffering from a legacy human degradation.

The thing is, the average Barbadian has never had an understanding of democracy as being anything more than a vote every five years, or engaging in what Maurice Bishop described as “ 2 second democracy.” Even more troubling is the fact that there have been certain key features of our governance, from the time of slavery until now, which have remained unchanged. One of the more worrisome features of our system has been its built-in authoritarianism, which has left government officials immune to any real public reprimand, save for the five year chance. Real- lived Public empowerment has never been a feature of our society and people just don’t understand how to affect the political system other than waiting again for a five year period. Those who do, either lack the constitutional power to do so, or are afraid of political backlash.

These reasons and many more would show us why it is possible for public officials to make statements of ‘cracking heads and shooting people’ without reprimand or any serious public backlash. This is why political parties are allowed to win elections based on fraudulent electoral campaigns without fear of public dismissal. This is also why leaders, whether within the unions or government, are allowed to withhold crucial information, such as the names of persons to be prospectively fired within the coming weeks, with no worry of any real threat from the body politic. Words such as accountability, transparency etc  etc mean very little for Barbadians, and in many ways these ideals are yet to be a lived reality.

What cannot be denied is that the current situation has indeed showed us, the failures of our system of governance and the exhaustion of party politics. Today the meaning of a vote is no longer an expression of a right fought for to affect a system. Rather it is a commodity which may be traded for a few dollars (or a new Ipad every five years). Youth today have undoubtedly grown more apathetic to a system which is already seen as so hard to affect and more interested in the workings of their new Ipads, lost in cyber space. Those who are not apathetic have either become politically brainwashed into the party v party conundrum, making a roll of excuses for those currently in office, while the rest are forced to resort to the standing opposition of the day.

“And I want to say that as far as I am aware, no political party has ever shown much enthusiasm for carrying out, in a systematic way, the kind of program of political education essential to any major change in the popular consciousness.” - George Lamming.

Further, words such as ‘political education’, from the time of independence, have never meant more than “vote for my party.” Our society now is crashing from a system which has encouraged a blind dependency on those in power, and has never fundamentally addressed even more crucial issues of civic rights and the responsibilities that go with them. Today what we see is a blatant abuse of public office by those in charge with the constant use of the media for legitimizing their mismanagement. This exercise in blindly trusting inept public officials has surely revealed that public officials can no longer be blindly trusted.

While the entire system of governance is in desperate need of democratic overhaul, the onus is on us few who are aware, to actively try to do something about it. The power to constitutionally change anything, to allow greater public participation for instance, (such as the ability to recall ministers, or force an election) currently remains in the hands of ruling elites, whose political agenda will never be towards that end. It is up to those of us who understand these issues to educate those around us and pressure that change into being.

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