Was Ramphal's absence from Mandela memorial a Caricom oversight?
Sir Shridath Ramphal's absence from last Tuesday's unique official memorial service in South Africa for the legendary Nelson Mandela was quite strange.
Knowing him, as others better informed about him would be aware, 'Sonny' Ramphal may well be amused by this journalist's intervention to inquire how could the governments of Caricom, among them Trinidad and Tobago — which currently holds the chairmanship — as well as that of his native Guyana, fail to recognise the appropriateness and validity of extending an invitation for him to be present for that historic memorial service in Johannesburg?
Those more acquainted with the better-known literature involving the various significant contributions of Mandela and Ramphal would be aware of how the late fighter for freedom and human dignity had publicly voiced personal admiration for the internationally recognised Caribbean intellectual and diplomat.
As three-term secretary general of the Commonwealth, Ramphal had played significant enabling roles during South Africa's gigantic struggles to end the heinous apartheid governance system in South Africa and, more specifically, for the freedom from 27 years' imprisonment of Mandela, the 95-year-old titan among the greatest of the world's greats who died on December 5.
In his 2008-released Shridath Ramphal (The Commonwealth and the World) essays by leading contributors in honour of the long-serving Guyana-born advocate for wider and deeper Caribbean integration and unity, Richard Bourne quotes Mandela in his introduction as commending Ramphal, for being "one of those men who have become famous because, in their fight for human justice, they have chosen the entire world as their theatre..."
Earlier, Mandela had recommended as "a timely work deserving our full attention" the 1997 published 410-page report, Our Global Neighbourhood, from the Commission on Global Governance, of which Ramphal was co-chairman with Sweden's Ingvar Carlson.
Eminent Persons Group
A dozen years earlier, in 1985, at the Commonwealth Summit in The Bahamas, Ramphal was to be fully engaged in helping to establish what came to be known as the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on South Africa's struggle to end apartheid rule and establishment of the first democratically elected government with Mandela as president.
Among the seven chosen members of the EPG was the distinguished first female governor general of Barbados, and internationally recognised otherwise, the now late Dame Nita Barrow.
The EPG representatives held two meetings with Mandela while in prison, and their report was to prove an effective political weapon in the rapid decline of apartheid and the release of Mandela to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
However, it so happened that for last Tuesday's memorial service when the Caribbean did well in showcasing an impressive regional presence — thanks to an initiative by the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Kamla Persad-Bissessar (current chairperson of Caricom) — Ramphal was not among any of the delegations.
Was it a terrible oversight, or just plain political ignorance of the sterling contributions to regional and international affairs by this widely recognised, articulate, most competent and committed son of the Caribbean?
In sharp contrast, that perhaps reveals a better concept of people-oriented governance, or enlightened appreciation for its citizens who have made international contributions for a better world, the Government of New Zealand chose to have among its delegation its well-known citizen and former Commonwealth Secretary General Sir Don McKinnon.
The Trinidad and Tobago prime minister deserves the praise being showered on her at home for not only including in her official delegation the country's Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, as well as the chairman of the local Emancipation Support Committee Khafra Kambon. Also, for facilitating representatives of member governments of the community to travel to South Africa from Piarco International on board State-owned Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL).
That particular aircraft has since been named after Nelson Mandela, as requested by the prime minister. But perhaps, as chairman of Caricom, she needs to explain whether it was just a surprising oversight that Ramphal, whose years in public life have been so deeply involved in Caribbean affairs, was not invited to be part of the 'Caricom presence' in South Africa.
For his part, on the day of the announcement of Mandela's passing, Ramphal, in his tribute to the towering international icon, noted:
"Tomorrow's children will not be able to say, as we can with pride and a deep sense of privilege, that we lived in the time of Nelson Mandela. A unique and memorable human being. 'Madiba' has gone from us, but he is part of eternity and will always belong to the entire world...
"His indomitable spirit," said Ramphal, "will forever inspire people in pursuit of freedom and justice; his humility will be a beacon for all who are wronged. He made our troubled age less shameful by his own nobility.
"He enriched my own life by the small part I played, as Commonwealth secretary general, in restoring him to freedom -- even though he showed that truly 'stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage'..."
The late former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (left), after being conferred with the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of the West Indies (UWI), when he visited the island in July 1991. At right is the former UWI Chancellor Sir Shridath Ramphal. (PHOTO: JIS)