Narratives play a critical role in our historical accounts: not least to act as filters for events as they occur in the world around us. These narratives are part of a whole welter of formal and informal processes, language and performance – dubbed “discourses” – that serve to fix the acceptable meaning of a given notion, and literally “hail” it into existence.
While not denying the importance of other structural features, discourses are most crucial, because they sanction certain kinds of action and not others. In times of heightened tension and conflict, narratives and discourses link individual and group identities, producing a sense of intertwined fate among groups. When violence is in the air, the fears also include concern for physical security and fears of extinction of self, family, and the group and its culture. Political actions – and reactions – are therefore highly influenced by the dominant discourses circulating at any given time.
The power of discourses lies in their ability to naturalise a particular way of interpreting something – be it an ethnic group or a strategy for political struggle. In Guyana, there have been discourses of hate that have marred our politics and social relations. It is useful to examine their production, dissemination and consumption in our society in order to note their effects. Discourses are rarely constructed out of thin air, but are built on previous narratives and themes that are topical. The discourse of “sin and sinners” played a large part in the larger black-white binary discourse to justify the genocidal treatment of Africans and other “natives” during and after slavery. They both loom large in our national psyche.
There are two parts to the construction of identity within discourse: firstly, the creation of the ‘other’ – with all negative qualities; and secondly, the comparison of that ‘other’ to the self – the antithesis imbued with all the “good” qualities. The archetypal binary hegemonic discourse owed its success to its divisive framing of the identities in play, as well as to the ‘truthful’ nature it attributed to that framing.
After a brief moment of “us” (all Guyanese) against “them” (the British), the struggle for independence introduced complications into the narrative. Between 1958 and 1964, it was “the PPP Government locking African-Guyanese out of development” (African narrative constructed by the PNC) or a “communist Government determined to deliver B.G. into Moscow’s arms” (the narrative of the West).
During the PNC regime of 1964-1992, after a virtual civil war between Indian- and African-Guyanese, the former’s narrative was of marginalisation through “racial” policies of a Government dominated by their African-Guyanese political opponents. After 1992, while the table turned, the “us “against them” discourse between Indians and Africans remained in place. Between 1993 and 1997, the discourse was sharpened by PNC claims of “ethnic cleansing” and other excesses of the PPP, and precipitated anti-Indian Guyanese riots after assertions that the 1997 elections were rigged.
As dozens of Indian-Guyanese businessmen were killed amidst a slew of robberies and kidnappings, African-Guyanese ideologues revived the narrative of “overcoming oppression”. Matters degenerated into a full-scale assault against the state and perceived supporters of the PPP by violent terroristic gunmen. The latter were dubbed “Resistance Fighters”. In a tit-for-tat response when the state institutions mandated to protect it buckled, armed “Phantom Gangs” engaged the Armed Gangs, and hundreds of citizens from all ethnic groups were killed across Guyana. The gangs were eliminated by 2008 and electoral politics resumed to resolve differences among the citizenry.
Because of demographic changes, the 2011 elections saw the PPP receiving only a plurality of votes to secure the presidency, while the Opposition APNU and AFC controlled the legislature. In 2015, the Opposition parties coalesced and won the elections outright. Unfortunately, after a studied refusal to follow constitutional rules, the APNU/AFC refused to accept defeat at the 2020 elections. The details need no reprisal. What is troubling is a revival of the narratives of hate by representatives of African-Guyanese inside and outside APNU.
This is the time for a national narrative, since there is now the certainty that each of the two major parties, concededly grounded in ethnic communities, can only secure the Government if they garner votes outside their bases.