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Friday, January 27, 2012

Majority Rule and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) in The Bahamas

Majority Rule and the PLP


Nassau, NP
The Bahamas

EVERY year when January 10 rolls around, I often feel as though the Progressive Liberal Party's glorification of Majority Rule Day is a political strategy to guilt me into pledging my allegiance to the PLP as a show of respect for all they did to bring about the liberation of the black masses in the Bahamas.

As an African woman who should surely see the importance of Majority Rule, the feelings are troubling. Not because the political strategy, if it were one, is tasteless, but because I believe contrarily that the PLP has failed to bring about true advance for black Bahamians as a collective body.

That is not to say I deny the contributions of our nation-builders and the significance of their accomplishments. But that is to say I do not think the PLP is exempt from the scrutiny of black Bahamians. The political organisation has a 59-year-old history, and it seems to me, all of their black cred(ibility) is based on pre-1980s glory.

Furthermore, I believe a true test of national progress is not to be found by assessing the best of us, speaking here in terms of economics and access, but the least of us.

And one only needs eyes to see that the underdevelopment of black Bahamians over the past 30 years has been and continues to be a national disgrace.

Surely there has been progress, but many examples are anomalous: black Bahamians who received handouts under Sir Lynden Pindling's arm of influence; who profited from illicit activity, whether drugs or gambling; who benefited from political connections or exceptional educational opportunities; and black Bahamians with destiny working in their favour.

Outside of those examples, the PLP would have to admit that economic progress for black Bahamians predated the PLP. By the time Majority Rule slipped through, there was already a thriving black middle class, for which the PLP cannot lay claim. This progress was achieved under the United Bahamian Party (UBP) government, albeit in spite of the UBPs efforts.

Within the black middle class. there was the Adderley family of Wilford Parliament Adderley, which was comprised of lawyers, politicians and doctors; the Bethel family of Marcus Bethel consisting of undertakers and politicians; Sir Milo Butler, patron of Milo B Butler and Sons, who produced a line of grocery merchants; Jackson Burnside, a dentist, who paved the way for his future lineage of professionals; noted patron of the Eneas clan, Bishop Wilmore Eneas, who was a religious leader.

Others in the black middle class included Dr CR Walker, restaurateur James Russel, banker A Leon McKinney, candy maker Ulrick Mortimer, and clothing retailer Erdley Moss. Irwin McCartney and Dwit Thompson owned a custom brokerage business; Audley C Kemp was in the liquor business, as were Charles and George McKinney; Hugh Campbell Cleare owned an East Bay Street bicycle shop; and Harcourt Carter sold Japanese electrical appliances.

The PLP did not make these men. On the contrary. Many of these men made the PLP. And since then, what? What progress has there been for black Bahamians who are not counted amongst the established lot.

On balance, as a collective community, black Bahamians are still in an economic and social quandary despite the hope-filled promises of better for blacks and the idealism of the Majority Rule era.

Although the PLP is still the most vocal champion of Majority Rule, whatever momentum it had as a galvanising force for the black community back then, today it has no credible basis to portray itself as the people's party.

For all of its former glory, the PLP has turned into just another political party, arguably no better or worse than any of the others, white, black, red or green. Far from being revolutionary, the PLP has been a mere "tweaker of the status quo". So what then is the meaning of Majority Rule, the PLP's symbol of black liberation?

Many of the people who take exception to the concept of majority rule at the same time promote the concept of One Bahamas. But both constructs are based on race. Proponents of One Bahamas try to express a raceless reality, but there is no such thing.

One Bahamas simply expresses an identity based on the negation of race. Majority Rule on the other hand does so based on the affirmation of race. In either case, without a racial consciousness One Bahamas and Majority Rule would be meaningless, redundant phrases.

For One Bahamas to have relevance and validity, it needs to express a vision of racial cohesion in the Bahamas, not based on the denial of race but on the acceptance of race.

Racial difference is not something to shun. It is part of our cultural diversity, and it is an important to understanding our cultural heritage. We should not seek to deny or inflate race, which exposes us to insult and political manipulation. We should accept it.

In one sense, Majority Rule is an inherently paradoxical concept, because in a system of political representation, presumed to be democratic, any elected government is a majority government. Therefore, even under the UPB's tenure there was majority rule.

One could argue that based on the UBP's racially discriminating laws that privileged white people, men and land owners, the body of eligible voters represented a national minority. If this were statistically true, then any claim to majority rule prior to the 1962 election could stand to be challenged. But even still, within the legal framework of governance, the UBP was without question a legitimate majority government.

So what then do we make of the 1962 election, which represented the first vote in which there was universal suffrage, and the 1967 election, which represented first time in Bahamian representational politics that the racial composition of the House of Assembly reflected the racial composition of the Bahamas society?

In order to give majority rule significance beyond its racial character, some point to the fact that in 1967 for the first time, "the will of the majority was finally expressed and converted into political power".

After all, in 1962, the PLP won 32,399 votes. But because of seat distribution, with only 26,826 votes, the UBP retained its power and went on to lead the next government.

However, the argument does not stand scrutiny. First, the 1962 conundrum was a flaw of the political system, not the racial dynamics or a kind of social imbalance peculiar to the age.
Although the gerrymandering related to seat distribution was a major obstacle, the fundamental flaw in the system was inherent. It still exists today, and it is globally felt.

In the modern democratic system, a government can form a majority even without the popular vote. Arguably it happened in 1967 - which questions the very basis of the PLP's claim to majority rule.
In 1967, the PLP won only 18,452 votes. Collectively, the PLP opposition secured 24,633 seats.
That hardly represents a popular majority. And in terms of seat distribution, the PLP came out even with the UBP: 18 seats each.

It was only after forming an alliance with Randol Fawkes of the Labour Party and independent candidate Alvin Braynen that the PLP was able to secure a majority. So what does that really say about Majority Rule?
From the standpoint of a popular uprising or black advancement then, 1962 was a much more impressive showing, because at least then the PLP won the popular vote hands down.

Given all that has been said, clearly Majority Rule requires further examination to separate fact from fantasy, and to arrive at true meaning over myth.

Another element that flies in the face of Majority Rule's traditional narrative is the PLPs struggle with an ideology of black empowerment.

Compared to the likes of black nationalists in the United States like Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) or Marcus Garvey, the PLP's concept of race was very tame. And the accomplishment of Majority Rule was no sign of black power. It represented change, yes, even political progress, but a revolutionary concept of black empowerment, no.

So what I find interesting and often overlooked is that, for all of its rhetoric, the political leadership who led blacks into an era of majority rule did so while at the same time running away from its black identity. Although it used race as a political tool to galvanise its constituents, the PLP did not use an affirmative ideology of blackness.

I spoke to one of the few living black parliamentarians of the 1967 election, and he admitted that black Bahamians were not joined in their common struggle for equal rights and justice, by an affirmative black power struggle. There was no such concept within the PLP's public platform.
I found further proof of this in an account of Sir Arthur Foulkes, who documented in short what he called the "PLP's long lie about race".

"Miriam Makeba, the celebrated black South African singer, was among a number of prominent blacks in America who wanted to do business in the new Bahamas.

"But Sir Lynden stopped her when he heard she was romantically linked with black power firebrand Stokely Carmichael. She left Sir Lynden's office in tears and never came back. The new Bahamas was having nothing to do with that," stated Sir Arthur.

He also recounted the story of Lady Marguerite Pindling, African American songstress Nina Simone and Bahamian journalist, Oswald Brown. Nina Simone, a known activist who used her music to share the struggles of black people and spread black protest songs, performed a concert in Nassau with Lady Marguerite and Mr Brown in attendance.
Mr Brown was so moved by the performance that he ran on stage and kissed Ms Simone's feet. By his own account, it was a sign of support, because there were some in the audience who started to boo her.
Lady Marguerite was reportedly unimpressed with Mr Brown and Ms Simone. According to Sir Arthur, Mr Brown was rebuked and chastised by the party.

Some would argue that the PLP supported black power, just a moderate version of it, but I wonder if the documented contradictions call this into question.

The PLP was not alone in this contradiction. The black dilemma was most notably played out in the United States between the differing ideological stances of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X.

However, what is often overlooked is that even Martin Luther King became more radical in his latter years. His famous lament was, "I fear I have integrated my people into a burning house".
In the white community, Sir Lynden is vilified as a being a black radical who racialised the country. In the black community he is heralded as a pragmatic moderate who knew how to balance delicate dynamics.

To me, there are any number of anecdotes that speak to a black government that was simply conscious of its inherent lack of power.

Nothing can invalidate the fact that Majority Rule represented the shattering of a glass ceiling for black Bahamians seeking political office. But there is much to question about some of the traditional narratives of Majority Rule: that it represented the expressed will of the majority; that it represented a form of black liberation; and that it established some incontrovertible black cred for the PLP.

It is not that I have a problem accepting Majority Rule as a mammoth accomplishment for black Bahamians. I believe Majority Rule marks an important political milestone; it recognises the political progress of black Bahamians in breaking a new barrier. I do not, however, believe it is a sign of black liberation or progress.

History has shown that black representation failed to bring about progress for black Bahamians as a collective body. The Bahamas still has an economic structure that favours the merchant class. Now, instead of profiting families like the Moskos and Pinders, the policies profit the likes of Franklyn Wilson and Tennyson Wells.

Although there was growth in the black middle class in the 70s and 80s, it has remained virtually stagnant since then. In the industries of merit, finance and tourism, Bahamians still have little ownership, and struggle to assume some of the top posts.

For Majority Rule to have had meaning beyond a recognition of progress for blacks in political representation, the PLP would have needed a true black mandate rooted in the affirmation of blackness.

In its 1968 constitution, the PLP stated as one of its objectives "to strive for and maintain the political emancipation of all the people of the Bahamas". For a political organisation, this would seem appropriate. After all, black people were under-represented in the House of Assembly. Looking skin deep, that was obvious.

What would have been more visionary and appropriate as an objective for a black majority government rooted in a shared ideology of blackness was the emancipation of every black person from the shackles of mental slavery. It is a task no white individual or white government can achieve for black people, and to this day, few if any black governments have undertaken the task with institutional purpose or strength.

A black government undertaking a black mandate would have examined all of the institutions of black oppression and represented the self-interests of black people.

To me, the promise of Majority Rule suggested that now we are going to make black people better off. Not just those at the top, but as a nation of black people we are going to grow. And no matter how much the PLP boasts, I just cannot see how it has lived up to that promise.

* Pan-African writer and cultural critic Noelle Khalila Nicolls is a practising journalist in The Bahamas.

January 25, 2012