August Monday inspiration

This year, our nation will actually be commemorating Emancipation Day on “August Monday”, as it was called in the beginning. This is a seminal event in our history – perhaps its foundational one. But it was an event that did not just “happen”: it was the culmination of hundreds of years of struggle by the enslaved people for the right to craft their own destiny. However, the event set off its own dynamic that offers us much in the present, to chew over as we ponder whether we have fulfilled the dreams, hopes and aspirations of “Emancipation”.
The reflection this year is even more critical since it comes at a time when the political system, controlled by the descendants of the emancipated, has ended in a seeming cul-de-sac. Political control of the State was not even a dream in 1834 for most, but it was a dream that had fired the imagination of Cuffy and the other organisers of the Berbice Rebellion back in 1763. It is nothing but a tragedy that some present political leaders do not appreciate the historic role they could play if they were to pick up from where our forefathers left off, to fulfil those dreams.
What were those dreams? First and foremost was to live a life of dignity. They did not expect such a life was going to be handed to them: part and parcel of “dignity” is to be able to not depend inordinately on others. To make Emancipation a positive act rather just the negative one of being “freed”, the ex-slaves used their “free time” during the four-year “Apprenticeship” period that followed Emancipation to work feverishly to accumulate a reservoir of savings.
This act demonstrated pellucidly that the newly-freed slaves could practice the vaunted value of “deferred gratification”, which economists and sociologists inform us, many of us have unfortunately discarded. Immediately upon being able to leave the plantations, they so did and formed villages by using their savings to purchase villages across the coastland. We know the first one was named Victoria after the British Queen of the time.
These villagers did another act that has also been evidently lost in the present: they embarked on securing economic independence. This was pursued through peasant farming, hard bargaining for their labour with the plantation owners and eventually as a proletariat in the towns, especially Georgetown. This insistence on economic independence must be re-inculcated in our present generation – but it will only become reality if the constraints are removed.
At Emancipation, peasant farming stagnated because the planters bitterly fought the farmers by denying them rights to water and drainage as well as funnelling credits to the newly imported Portuguese. There was also the structural constraint that since Guyana was off the regular shipping lanes of inter-Caribbean trade, the market for their goods never expanded beyond the local shores. The Government of the day kept on encouraging the importation of foreign foods on which their agents could make huge profits.
In the present, there are also structural constraints holding back our still-unanswered dreams for economic independence as in 1834. The World Bank, other financial institutions and development experts are unanimous in their conclusion that poor or non-existent infrastructure is one of the most serious binding constraints on our thrust for development. Cheap power is the most critical of those constraints.
Britain could embark on its industrial revolution because of its abundant coal at the time to power the manufacture of high value goods for trade. Petroleum succeeded coal as the fuel of choice and has remained on the top of the heap in spite of its high prices. Hydro-electric power offers us a practical alternative to achieve energy independence while moving us out of the vicious trap of being only primary product producers.
This Emancipation Day, we hope our politicians will emancipate themselves from mental slavery and support the Amaila Falls Hydro-Electric Project (AFHEP).