Columns

The spirit of JAMAICA

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

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We have just celebrated 55 years as an independent nation. The Government seems to have spared no effort in putting on a show, fireworks and all. Despite the inevitable voices from the Opposition decrying the money spent on the celebrations, a nation needs this breather from time to time. One can allow for a degree of spending on such events. It gives the nation a breathing space, if even a brief respite from worrying about crime, corruption and repeal of the buggery law.

If you will pardon some cynicism on my part, one wonders if the Independence gala had not been put on, and money 'saved', where would this money have gone?

Of course, the Opposition would argue that it could augment the budget for schools, increase milk subsidies to the poor, or improve the justice system. Maybe the Government would put it to another de-bushing programme which would again give the Office of the Contractor General some unnecessary work to do. Of one thing you could be certain, such funds would disappear down the deep gullet of the government bureaucracy, thus escaping any real accountability for it.

Every reflection on our Independence brings about reflection on where we are coming from as a nation, where we presently are, and on what the future portends. Where we are coming from is clear cut. Our British colonial masters were willing to hand over responsibility for our own affairs to us. Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante were the two heroes of this Independence saga. What historians have characterised as “a struggle” for independence was not really a struggle in the classical, revolutionary sense. There were no bullets fired and the British had long come to the conclusion that Jamaica could be let go without any harm to the British treasury. The year 1962 was a time far removed from the glorious days of the 18th century when sugar was king and Jamaica was a gem in the British crown.

What we received was largely political independence, but the British left us with respectable institutions and relevant social and economic infrastructure on which we could build a truly prosperous nation. But what have we done with this legacy?

Our first great political act as an independent nation was to craft our own constitution. What emerged was a document that gave sovereign power to the parliament. Sovereignty did not and still does not reside with the people as is made clear, for example, in the United States Constitution. In a famous quip attributed to one of the prominent members of the then constitutional committee: To give justiciable rights to the people was to derogate from the sovereignty of parliament. There have been some improvements with the new charter of rights that were recently promulgated, but by and large justiciable rights are not enjoyed by the ordinary Jamaican. The constitution urgently needs to be overhauled. I think we have lived with the present document long enough to realise that it is deficient in many respects. Radical, rather than cosmetic change is necessary to make it more adaptable to the needs of a modern Jamaica.

I do not hold my breath that anything will be done soon; for Government is preoccupied with a rising murder rate, and the Opposition is busy making sure the Government gets hell so it can be back in Jamaica House soon. Furthermore, either out of ignorance or disingenuity, politicians do not see or articulate the relatedness between poverty and injustice and the kind of constitutional arrangement that we have had since 1962. The lack of constitutionally guaranteed accountability of the political directorate leads to the corrupt use of State resources, especially in the tribal politics that emerged early in our life as an independent nation.

At 55, Jamaica ranks high on the world's corruption perception index. Poll after poll Jamaicans have registered their disgust at how corrupt Jamaica is and have fingered the political parties to be at the centre of it. There has never been any great alacrity by both parties that have served successively as government to create constitutional bodies to deal with this cancer. They only seem to respond to pressure from civil society groups.

It is true that we have made some significant strides in our 55 years. In sports, art, and culture Jamaica has become a brand. What is significant about this branding, however, is that it is largely the effort of individuals — our musicians and sport icons, like Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. The achievements of these icons have come about by their own personal resilience and struggle. This spirit is so true of the Jamaican people: to seize their own personal destinies in their own hands and to forge ahead notwithstanding the difficulties placed in their path by a decadent political culture.

And so, on our 55th birthday, it is this resilient and can-do spirit that I celebrate and congratulate. It is this spirit that has kept us alive as a nation. It is this spirit that political tribalism and the violence that it has spawned have sought to destroy. And it is this same spirit that allows us to punch far above our weight in the international arena, even in foreign policy where Jamaica's voice continues to be respected.

My hope is that our political leaders will pay more respect to this spirit of resilience in the Jamaican people, instead of taking it for granted or exploiting it for their own personal gains. There is evidence that there is a growing majority that has seen the impotence of this kind of manipulation and is demanding better.

In the end, this spirit speaks to that which defines us as a nation. People will fight and struggle only for something that they believe in, that they are important stakeholders in. We are suffering from an identity crisis, a schizophrenia, in which we are deeply divided along socio-economic lines. Income inequality and the ever-widening gap between what former leader of the Jamaica Labour Party Edward Seaga once characterised as the gap between the haves and have-nots, is an ever present reality of our political and socio-economic landscape.

The narrowing of these gaps is what “5 in 4” and economic prosperity is intended to achieve. But for now many Jamaicans feel themselves left out. A recent poll indicated that many do not believe in a Jamaican dream which, in any event, is yet to be clearly defined. Other polls have revealed that a majority, if given a chance, would migrate to the United States. If their legendary resilience is not acknowledged at home, they certainly will lend it abroad if given the chance.

The challenge facing the present generation of Jamaicans is not just to grow a prosperous economy, but finding ways in which the ordinary Jamaican can be made to feel that he or she is central and not peripheral to this cause. No amount of analysis, bleating from political platforms, verbal diarrhoea in Parliament, or soothing sermons from pulpits can mask this reality.

One hopes that as we move toward the next 55 years we will be more respectful of the resilience of our people and what it means to be uniquely Jamaican.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

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