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Out of the bowels of desperate poverty, a true Jamaican political success story is scripted

Sunday, March 21, 2004    

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Desmond McKenzie is no angel. Wait a minute. Let's back up a little. Angels are only to be found in Heaven, right? So let's start again.

If they ever come to do the movie based on the life of Desmond McKenzie, the script will say that here truly is a genuine Jamaican political success story, forged in the bowels of the desperate poverty that was 1950s West Kingston and in the heat of the political battleground of Tivoli Gardens - antecedents Back-O-Wall.

Sired by a father who quickly abandoned the family, and nurtured by a mother who eked out a hard living as an office attendant/messenger, Desmond McKenzie defied the odds and rose to become a man of destiny.

He may be only the first in local political history to have had the rare choice between remaining a senator of the Jamaican Parliament and becoming mayor of the City of Kingston, emerging at last from out of the towering shadows of Edward Seaga, and the lingering image of a consummate rabble-rouser.

Predictably, and he admits it to the Sunday Observer as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that script is authored by Edward Phillip George Seaga, the man they feared and dubbed "The Black Heart Man" when he first appeared "out of nowhere" to start research on culture and revivalism in Western Kingston in the 60s.

In his first major interview on his life, McKenzie gave insights into the reasons behind the fierce loyalty and love of worship proportions that West Kingstonians, like himself and Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, have for Seaga. He also recalled a severe caning he received from his mentor Seaga, and he suggested that the politically significant transformation of Back-O-Wall into Tivoli Gardens - which he witnessed as a child of 11 and which involved the uprooting of large numbers of People's National Party (PNP) supporters - was justified.

Desmond Anthony McKenzie was born into poverty, desperate poverty, on December 1, 1952, the last of five children - four boys and one girl. The family was living at the corner of Spanish Town Road and Salt Lane. His mother, Edna Anderson, worked at the law offices of Dunn Cox and Orrett and afterwards at the offices of Donald Sangster who was later to become prime minister of Jamaica. When his late father, Selvin McKenzie abandoned the family, she married Dudley Harvey, who became "one of the most significant persons in my life".

In the chapter on his step-father, McKenzie slipped visibly into a dark mood of remorse when he recalled that Harvey died last year May, a month before the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the local government elections which propelled him to the job of mayor of Kingston.

"I regret so much that he did not live to see me become mayor," he says convincingly. "But thankfully he was around when I was appointed senator. I know he was very proud of me."

Duke Reid and the sound system era

McKenzie spent all his boyhood and most of his adult life in West Kingston, moving to West Street, Bond Street, Pink Lane and finally to Tivoli Gardens after the Back-O-Wall debacle. At Bond Street, he got his first exposure to politics and music. Number 34 Bond Street was the PNP base, he recalls. Not far from there was the home of the famed Duke Reid Studio, sound system giant of the time.

His first job came through the connection with Duke Reid. He had taken an interest in learning to spin the records and started a modest record collection. RJR's Hol Plummer used to assist him by giving him records and showing him how to operate the console. Those were the days of the vinyl 45s and LPs. Sticky Parkes, 'Handicap' and the late Cecile Wilson were among the personalities who were important to him then.

"I would spin the records from 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening until the big boys came and took over. My mother bought a stereo and that encouraged me to get more records. I got my first turn-table from a man called Lynval Shearer. Then I acquired an amplifier on credit from Stanley Motta. I still have them today and they are in working order. I used to play at bars in the area."

With his late friend, Ansel Daley, he built sound boxes from loose boards they found and named the discotheque 'Soul Exuma Obeahman', later dropping the 'obeahman'. Exuma was a thriving African artiste, known for such songs as Bam Bam and Brown Girl in the Ring.

The first real break came at a dance at Solitaire Road off Woodpecker Avenue in the Waltham Park Road area. McKenzie recalls that Peter Tosh lived in the same yard. Disaster struck that night when police raided the dance and "mashed it up". Tosh, who was smoking and playing his guitar, was badly beaten by the police. The word on the street was that they did so at the bidding of a rival sound system whose dance in the area the same night had flopped, because of theirs. But Soul Exuma prospered and went on to bigger dates, eventually playing at the prestigious West Kingston Charity Balls and at Byron Lee's New Year's Eve parties and what was later to be known as 'Blow Out' fetes.

Demolition of Back-O-Wall

A young McKenzie would have been deeply influenced by the events surrounding the demolition and transformation of Back-O-Wall, the sprawling slum he described as a feared community where three communal standpipes and two public bathrooms served a population of well over 5,000 people.

As a lad, this is how McKenzie saw it: "At that time, where Tivoli Gardens is situated now was known as Back-O-Wall, which was the largest slum in the English-speaking Caribbean. And Back-O-Wall existed also as a strong haven for the PNP in West Kingston during the 50s and 60s. It was also a den where persons with the wrong intention used to live. It had a very high crime rate and the social infrastructure was not conducive to proper living. People there lived in old cars and card-board shacks.

"Back-O-Wall was a scar on the face of West Kingston in those days. And Back-O-Wall perhaps was synonymous with how people used to think about West Kingston. At that time, the reality was that anything that people rejected or had no further use for in life, was deposited in West Kingston."

He lists the largest dump at Bumper Hall, on lands where St Andrew Technical High School is now situated; the abattoir which is still there; the largest sewage treatment plant; the largest public cemetery in the English-speaking Caribbean - the May Pen Cemetery; the morgue at that time; the two largest maternity and public hospitals in the English-speaking Caribbean - the Victoria Jubilee and Kingston Public hospitals; the Blood Bank; the largest market in the English-speaking Caribbean - the Coronation Market, and also 99 per cent of all the markets within the Corporate Area.

"It is also the site of 99 1/3 of all the funeral parlours in the Corporate Area; the oil refinery is situated in West Kingston; the Jamaica Railway Corporation is situated in West Kingston; the JOS bus depot at that time; it is today the site of the largest power plant - Hunts Bay. So all the things that perhaps were not fit for human beings to live around were to be found in West Kingston. And Back-O-Wall at that time devalued the image of West Kingston," so McKenzie tells it.

Enter Edward Seaga

A decisive turning point in the lives of the residents, particularly the young people in Western Kingston, came with the arrival of Edward Seaga, McKenzie remembers. He would make an awesome impression on them and under his tutelage some would rise to national prominence, notably "Babsy" Grange, Daphne Hurge, Samuel Dreckette, the late reggae superstar Dennis Brown, Winston Bopee who was lead guitarist for We the People band, the Techniques, among others.

Seaga had entered West Kingston on grounds that he was researching culture and revivalism in the area. McKenzie recalls the fascination that the residents, especially the young people, had with this unlikely man who had come out of nowhere. The adults dubbed him "The Black Heart Man", a popular but fictional character that parents conjured up to keep children away from strangers. They were also thrilled by the way Seaga could move to the beat of the revival drums.

Seaga eventually bought out Victor's Pop Band that gave birth to the Techniques. Many young Jamaican talents were nurtured there. Young upcoming stars such as Jimmy Cliff, Marcia Griffiths, Delroy Wilson, Count Prince Miller and the like played at Chocomo Lawn, the cultural centre that Seaga developed. Such was the reputation and prestige of the place that "anybody who was anybody played the Chocomo Lawn".

McKenzie says that although Seaga had firmly ensconced himself in the community by 1961, when it was announced that he would be the JLP candidate for West Kingston, most people thought that he did not stand a chance. No party had ever won consecutive victories there. Even Alexander Bustamante who had won in 1944 had to beat a hasty retreat in 1949. Hugh Shearer won in 1955 and was thrashed in 1959.

Tivoli Gardens.from the ashes of Back-O-Wall

McKenzie notes that during his campaign for the 1962 election, Seaga had pledged to demolish Back-O-Wall and replace it with a community "befitting of decent human beings" and with opportunities for the young people to grow and develop. He won the election and smashed West Kingston's political tradition by never losing since. True to his pledge, he set about transforming Back-O-Wall into Tivoli Gardens in 1963 as the then minister of development.

McKenzie was one of the early residents of Tivoli, recounting that it was named after what is today known as the Queen's Theatre, but with its origins in Tivoli, an Italian city that is a major tourist haven.

Commenting on historical claims that the JLP drove out PNP supporters from Back-O-Wall, McKenzie admits there "might have been some merit in the claim". But, quickly he adds: "A lot of them benefitted from the development because many of them bought and rented houses there. One of the criteria was that you had to be in a position to afford the homes in order to be a recipient.

" Perhaps the reason for that argument - about driving out of PNP supporters - was that the area supported the PNP very strongly. It was one of the areas that the PNP could rely on for massive support. And it was an area that was very disruptive of any political meetings, or rallies or marches that the JLP used to have in West Kingston at that time. It was a very feared community."

Tivoli would later become the subject of study by social planners from many countries, seeing it as a model of what communities could be, says McKenzie. Its centrepiece was the community centre, built in the 1980s, the largest in Jamaica and housing a training centre for a range of skills, a sports field, a library, the home of the Tivoli Steel Band and other facilities.

"Tivoli was built out of the dust and the ashes of an experience that if it was used wisely throughout Jamaica in many depressed areas, and not abused and victimised like how Tivoli was abused and victimised, it would have been a concept that would have helped to steer us differently, in a different path than we are today," McKenzie says with obvious conviction.

He notes with pride that prime ministers and heads of state had visited Tivoli to see the model for themselves and to return home to copy it in their countries. The first woman president of the Senate, Jeanette Grant-Woodham, was principal of the Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive High School. The first maternity hospital outside of Jubilee was built in Tivoli Gardens - the Kiwanis Maternity Centre.

But McKenzie insisted that after the 1972 elections won by the PNP, many of the government-supported social services were abandoned and that had severely hurt the community. "That was straight politics, and not based on anything real."

Political beginnings

McKenzie's political beginnings were first ignited by his mother's activities as secretary of the then Dominion Branch in the JLP group structure. He would attend the group meetings with her in the 50s. He became a member of the branch's juvenile group, preparation - though he could not have known it at the time - for his later years in Young Jamaica, the youth arm of the JLP. His mother used to remark that he would become one of two 'Ps', either a politician or a pastor, because he used to sit his siblings down and preach to them as if they were in church. The men in nearby bars would put him on a stool and pay him to talk on any subject they fancied.

But ironically, he says, he got greater exposure to politics because he used to visit the wholesale store of Clinton 'Boss' Wright, the PNP councillor who used to take him to PNP meetings. He was also at the time an active altar boy and had a love for listening to people like Bustamante, Edwin Allen, Norman Manley, Wills O' Isaacs and other political stalwarts who passed through.

Yet real involvement only came with Seaga and the campaign of 1962 against the PNP's Dudley Thompson, who McKenzie accused of introducing racism into the politics, by campaigning on the basis of Africanism "and burning spear and things like that".

McKenzie says he used to follow Seaga around, drawn by the "love and appreciation which he had shown to us".

According to McKenzie, Seaga exposed the young people to things they could only dream about. He would take them to the movies, and to buy ice-cream and chicken. Most importantly, he introduced training and stressed the importance of education.

After Seaga won the election, the branch system became an integral part of his organisation. McKenzie started out as "an outer guard" to help secure the meetings from disruptive elements. He then became the chaplain, leading the prayers and later president of the Juvenile group in the Dominion branch in 1963-64. He was made a member of the constituency executive that Seaga formed out of all the Juvenile group presidents. As he grew politically, he was asked to co-chair political meetings as the junior to a man named June Rose and to lead the singing of party songs.

"My first major speaking engagement came when Mr Seaga got married in 1965 - to Miss Jamaica 1964, Mitzie Constantine - at a reception held at Vale Royal. I was asked to represent West Kingston, to bring a toast. Up to that time I had never worn a jacket. I recall being taken by Veronica Carter, the constituency secretary, to a place I believe was called El Carte Ingles to be suited out. A pair of shoes was bought for me at Abe Issa's store at West Street," McKenzie recounts with a hint of bemusement.

In the 1966 local government election, Seaga introduced him at meetings as his "spare", explaining that "when you are driving a motorcar, you need a spare". People used to 'stone' him with money on the platform, something he liked very much. for obvious reasons. Around that time, he took over the main job of chairing the political meetings and setting up the public address system.

Seaga wasn't afraid to drop lick

He adds that Seaga was very strict. School and things like discipline were serious business and "he wasn't afraid to drop lick when you got out of hand". A 1972 caning - he would have been about 20 years old then - stands out in his mind. "I remember the last beating I got from him was in 1972, during that election. I had a terrible period at that time. Everything I put my hand on I used to mash it up. and I got a good caning from him for being in a demolishing mood, very destructive and being very irresponsible." He recalled Samuel Dreckette and several others also being caned by Seaga. Dreckette now lives in the United States.

Seaga's interest in culture soon enveloped the community. He introduced a range of cultural activities. The West Kingston Drum Corps was born during that time. "We were exposed to all kinds of interesting things. He gave us Christmas work. At Christmas time we would get a pair of shoes. He was always there for us. Top international artistes, like Sammy Davis, came to Chocomo Lawn."

In 1967, Seaga won his second victory at the polls, by a bigger margin, notes McKenzie. "We were seeing a different level of political representation. The people saw that he was good for them, despite the fact that he was not of our complexion. He introduced Christmas work and supported us. He built training centres in areas like Denham Town, Hannah Town, Salt Lane and Tivoli. Education was critical so he built the Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive High School, the St Andrew Technical High School, the Denham Town Primary and Secondary. He also built Things Jamaican at Bumper Hall to promote craft and culture.

"The people started to think better of themselves. Even now some people in Jamaican society do not feel, as they did then, that we were good enough. The change started with Mr Seaga. We saw that someone had recognised that West Kingston was no longer a place to deposit the things for which they had no use."

To fund the constituency, the West Kingston Trust was established at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, the people to be the beneficiaries. The Trust staged the West Kingston Charity balls, which at times featured big names like Miriam Makeba, Eartha Kitt, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the Jamaica Folk Singers and a host of others. When the balls outgrew West Kingston, they were moved to the National Arena.

Councillor McKenzie

All the time, McKenzie's political involvement was intensifying. He soon became sports and youth co-ordinator for the party. After the eventful 1976 election, memorable for the State of Emergency, two vacancies for parish council divisions appeared in Tivoli and Denham Town. Seaga offered the jobs to Dreckette and McKenzie.

"I didn't know what I was getting into. I just didn't know what to say.," says McKenzie. "We had a meeting with the constituency, the branch workers and they unanimously supported me (for Denham Town) and Dreckette (for Tivoli) as their choice."

Both men won in the virtual no-contests in the 1977 local government polls - the only two JLP candidates to win their seats to the 41-seat Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC).

McKenzie recalls that after his speech at the installation - in which he indicated that paucity of numbers would not hinder them from strongly representing their constituencies, they were mobbed by PNP supporters.

Says McKenzie: "I indicated in the speech that we were coming in as tigers but would probably grow to the stage of an elephant. It didn't come across well with many of the PNP supporters. We had to be escorted out of the KSAC, through the back door. They had to put us in a police radio car and I don't know where they got a sheet from, but they used the sheet to cover us up in the back of the vehicle. That was how we were able to get out of the KSAC. So that was how that all started for me and for Dreckette in the KSAC."

He became a vice-president of Young Jamaica with responsibility for Surrey from 1977 to 1980; president of Young Jamaica from 1980 to 1982; member of the JLP Standing Committee from 1977 to 1979; member of the Central Executive from 1977 to present; and, of course, member of the campaign committee.

Then bigger things came.

In 1999, he was made chairman of the JLP Corporate Area Organisation - better known as Area Council One. He started to work closely with deputy leader Derrick Smith. That was two years after the 1997 general elections - yet another loss to the PNP - and it brought enormous challenges.

"We had just come off the 1997 elections and the party was splintering within the Corporate Area. and we had not won anything in the Corporate Area since 1980 when we took the majority of the seats. and we did not do well in the few local government elections that were held between that time. We had a very formidable PNP Corporate Area organisation, so I thought. So we went back to the drawing board.

"After doing our analysis, we decided to take a very proactive approach. We put in about two years of work. We worked in all 15 constituencies in the Corporate Area for the first time, deciding that wherever one JLP vote was we would go there. We targeted nine of the 15 constituencies, and there was one that we could have won with more work."

In the end, the JLP took eight of the nine constituencies in the 2003 national elections and "did exceptionally well" in constituencies like East Central St Andrew, won by the PNP's Maxine Henry-Wilson. McKenzie's team got more seats than any other area council.

The Paul Burke chapter

McKenzie stresses that during that time, he found common cause with the PNP's Paul Burke, chairman of Region Three and the two "started our own little crusade" to reduce the violence which was raging in certain constituencies. As a result of their combined effort, the 2003 elections were among the most peaceful in the Corporate Area.

"Even today we still feel proud because there are very few isolated incidents of violence." he says. "I think it had to do with the work that was put in by the Area Council along with the PNP's organisation."

Their efforts were continued by Bishop Herro-Blair's Peace Management Initiative.

Senator McKenzie

Impressed with McKenzie's performance as head of Area Council One, Seaga promptly named him a senator after the big election gains. He says it took him by surprise, but his MP and close associates told him he had matured and could do a good job of it.

But not everyone was clapping. There were those who felt that people like McKenzie did not belong in the Senate. "Even people in the media felt that 'well, you know, what you expect, he's his (Seaga's) right hand man, so he has to reward him for being faithful'. But knowing Mr Seaga as I do over the years, you are not rewarded for just loyalty. You have to be able to perform and perform effectively."

But with "seven out of 10" people egging him on, he accepted the appointment. "They said they expected me to do well and that they knew that I can do well."

The Senate was a different kettle of fish. It was all new to him. "The first couple of weeks I will never forget. A lot of the debate was alien to me, it was foreign to me. In the first weeks I sat and I listened to the debates. I didn't participate in any, because, to be honest with you, I didn't want to open my mouth and then I didn't know what I was saying. My first real attempt to make a contribution was on the matter that I had portfolio responsibility for - local government. I tabled some questions on the local government reform as to where it was going.

His first presentation was on a resolution tabled by Senator Kes Miller on crime and what was to be done. "I made a contribution which I thought was very okay. But gradually I got a feel of what it was like and then I started to make my own impression in the Senate. The one I was most pleased with was on the Municipalities Act that gave municipality status to Portmore. I did serious research and got help with the research on it and even Government senator, Trevor Munroe commended me on the quality and the research of the presentation," he underlines with unmasked pride.

Mayor McKenzie

He was getting "addicted" to the Senate when the local government elections of June 2003 came. The same organisational approach was taken to the local polls as for the national elections the year before. This time, the JLP took 22 of the 40 divisions, giving them control of the KSAC, only the third time that the party had won the majority of the divisions in the Corporate Area.

This victory now set in train a new journey for McKenzie. Most importantly, he would be given a choice that perhaps no other Jamaican politician had had to face: to be mayor of Kingston or senator in the Parliament of the land.

He insisted that his becoming mayor was not a cut and dried affair. There were others who had ambitions. The choice was made by the party machine and the councillors, but he wasn't forced to accept that choice.

"The leader of the opposition couldn't fire me as a senator and the Standing Orders of the Council are quite clear as to how you remove the mayor. When you add both things together, I had adequate protection under the law that could have allowed me to hold both positions. But I didn't believe that I could manage both."

He argues that the Senate is a full-time job, as is mayor of the capital city. The two positions are critical to a country. And he is proud to have been afforded the opportunity to occupy both.

"I can say I sat in the Upper House of the Parliament where many outstanding Jamaicans have sat and have made contributions. And I can say that I sat in the chair of the mayor of Kingston that has produced many outstanding individuals.

"The KSAC is an institution that has contributed significantly to the growth and development of Jamaica," McKenzie argues. "The KSAC has produced at least four of our national heroes; two prime ministers; numerous ministers of government and individuals who have gone on to make a name for themselves on a national scale. So the prestige comes because I have sat in both chambers that many, many outstanding Jamaicans, some from humble background, have originated."

McKenzie was profusely thankful to the many persons who assisted him to make a contribution to both institutions and now to the KSAC.

Firmly ensconced as mayor now, his vision for the city is myriad, limited only by the paucity of resources. "I would be a happy man if tomorrow I could preside over a council that has the kind of autonomy and respect that would make us worthy of the positions that we hold as city fathers and mothers. We are still dependent on Central Government for survival. We have to wait on whatever is to be given to us. And when it comes, it makes life so difficult for us, because we have so many problems and there are so little resources.

"I think with autonomy, with the kind of authority that can make us self-sufficient, we would do much better. It doesn't make sense that I have a vision to repair all the potholes and to take down all the billboards within the municipality when I don't have the resources and the backing to do it. We can't continue to operate in a system where we are limited in terms of what we can do. So my vision is for full autonomy and for local government to be entrenched fully in the constitution that it can get the recognition that it deserves."

Love and family

Like most successful men, McKenzie relies on family strength. In the throes of political twist and turns, he found love in Marcia Hutchinson of Rema (Wilton Gardens) 28 years ago; they married two years after and have two sons, Marcus, 23 and Matthew, 15. From a previous relationship, he fathered three children, Mark, 32, Petagaye, 27 and Tiffany, 24.

Of his wife he says: "She is my love and my support. When I get home depressed some evenings, she is there to rub my head and encourage me. Marcia makes such a difference to my life."

And what now of the future? A cautious pause, a distant look on his face as if willing the future to the present, McKenzie reflects and says modestly: "The Labour party has never had a mayor who has actually served a full term, and we have never had a two-term mayor here at the KSAC. So there are some challenges that we have to face in terms of that."

For now, the challenge is to keep focused on the things he must do; never to forget the people who have held his hand, or the place from whence he came - notably Western Kingston and the virtual second home he maintains at the Domtar Sports Club on Hagley Park Road in Kingston, frolicking with people like Keith Williamson, Freddy Bahadur, Vincent Miller and his PNP friend, Winston Anderson.

He is modest about the many accolades he has gotten since rolling up his sleeves in the job of City Father. "People are recognising that good can come out of Nazareth."

The interview is not finished. The Desmond McKenzie story certainly is not. There are chapters not yet written. Past episodes of deep, dark struggles and future monuments still to be crafted by a man touched by the hand of fate and destiny. When he is ready to tell it, my pen will write again.

Next week: Cliff Hughes - Is the Journalist of the Year all that?

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