By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI Visit rcsocialjusticett.org for our columns, media releases and more.
“…to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” (Nelson Mandela). These words came to mind as I walked around the Nelson Mandela Exhibition at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London recently (July 18– August 19) with my friend, Margaret-Ann Clarke.
The exhibition marks the centenary of the birth of this iconic freedom-fighter (1918–2013). It focuses on “his life, career, and commitment to equality and justice, as well as on the life and times in which he lived. It provides insight into Mandela’s journey from young freedom fighter to becoming the inspiration for an international movement against South Africa’s violent and oppressive apartheid system, and an emblem of an ongoing struggle to build a more just and equitable world” (South Bank Centre).
I remember standing outside South Africa House (SA High Commission) at Trafalgar Square, London, on many a cold day in the late 1970s and 1980s in solidarity with others in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
I am sure that, like me, you would have thanked God when, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from a South African jail after 27 years behind bars. On that day I also joined in the celebrations as many of us hugged each other and danced on the streets outside South Africa House.
Here in T&T we are about to observe the 56thyear of independence. I never grew tired of hearing the late Sir Ellis Clarke speak about the role he played in the process of the country’s gaining independence. Not only was he one of the main architects of the 1962 independence Constitution, but he also contributed significantly at the Marlborough House Conference on independence for Trinidad and Tobago in June 1962—paving the way for our independence.
My father, the late Balgobin Ramdeen, served as MP for Caroni East in the first independent Parliament (1961–1966).
Read again Dr Eric Williams’ powerful Independence Day address. Today, every word of his address is pertinent to the times in which we live. Here are just a few extracts for reflection:
“What use will you make of your independence? What will you transmit to your children five years from today?…The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy…
Democracy, finally, rests on a higher power than Parliament. It rests on an informed and cultivated and alert public opinion…Whatever the challenge that faces you, from whatever quarter, place always first that national interest and the national cause.
The strength of the Nation depends on the strength of its citizens. Our National Anthem invokes God’s blessings on our Nation, in response to those thousands of citizens of all faiths who demanded God’s protection in our Constitution.
Let us then as a Nation so conduct ourselves as to be able always to say in those noblest and most inspiring words of St Paul, ‘By the Grace of God we as people are what we are, and His Grace in us hath not been void’.”
Fifty-six years on, what use are we making of our independence? Has God’s Grace in us been “void”? I don’t think so. I am a firm believer in the virtue of hope. Some say, like WB Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. I am not hiding my head in the sand, like an ostrich. I know that there are many social ills and dysfunctional institutions to be “fixed”, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralysed by the enormity of the challenges that we face.
Let us celebrate our many achievements as an independent nation and commit to working together, in solidarity, to build a better T&T.
Pope St John XXIII’s words are instructive: “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”
Our freedom from colonial rule is priceless, but our hopes and dreams will not be realised if each of us sits like a couch potato and expects others to effect change.
Thomas Paine rightly said: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men/women, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Our motto should be emblazoned on our hearts: “Together we aspire, together we achieve.” It’s time to “rally ‘round”/serve our country. Happy Independence Day!