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People power and a new, just society! NJAC celebrates 48th anniversary of historic 1970 march

“The desire for a new and just society, therefore, could only be achieved by replacing the old institutions with new ones. The generation of the 1970s thus saw its mission as the removal of these alien impositions and the mobilisation of our population for the building of a new foundation in keeping with our Caribbean experiences and our vision of a free and just society.

“Led by Chief Servant Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger), the population responded with 55 days of street demonstrations across T&T. Tens of thousands of demonstrators sought to re-define their nation, their region and their lives in the context of their history as they pursued a new and just society in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The following Letter to the Editor on the 1970 revolution and how it helped to shape the course of Trinidad and Tobago’s history, was submitted to Wired868 by Kwasi Mutema, NJAC’s current Political Leader.

Photo: NJAC leader Makandal Daaga (centre) holds forth at a media conference in 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

Frantz Omar Fanon, the great Martinican revolutionary, philosopher, writer and psychiatrist, states in his book The Wretched of the Earth that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

The generation of the 1970s had, in no way, any intention of betraying its mission. Under the astute leadership of Makandal Daaga and the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), the masses responded most vigourously to the clarion call of the day, “Let us make the necessary sacrifices now and not leave the burden to the next generation.”

The leaders of the movement were determined that regardless of the “burdens,” their legacy must ensure that future generations could enjoy the opportunities they deserve to utilise their God-given potential for the creation of a better Trinidad and Tobago.

Up to 1970, eight years after Britain had granted T&T “Independence,” the colonial institutions were still very much intact and in full effect. These institutions had been created by our colonisers to guarantee and maintain their dominance over our land and people.

The two main facets of the colonial institutions were the philosophy of white supremacy and the superiority of the metropolitan countries over the colonies and the rest of the world. Even after Independence, therefore, this racist system guaranteed a slave-like existence for the masses of Africans and Indians, the sons and daughters of the former slaves and indenture workers.

The local whites were cast in a subservient position to the foreign whites and were a second class to the dominant imperialists who frustrated the quest for social mobility.

Photo: A depiction of slaves serving their masters in Trinidad.
(Courtesy Netssa.com)

The desire for a new and just society, therefore, could only be achieved by replacing the old institutions with new ones. The generation of the 1970s thus saw its mission as the removal of these alien impositions and the mobilisation of our population for the building of a new foundation in keeping with our Caribbean experiences and our vision of a free and just society.

To achieve the new reality, new principles had to be introduced. These were based on the pursuit of people power. The three main tenets were mobilisation, consultation and participation. These principles were rooted in a deep respect for the people and in the recognition of their God-given right to participate meaningfully in the determination of their destiny.

On Thursday 26 February, 1970, on the anniversary of the founding of NJAC in 1969, a march was held in solidarity with the T&T and other Caribbean students who were on trial in Canada. After protesting in front of the Canadian Embassy on South Quay and at Canadian institutions in Port-of-Spain, such as the then Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Nova Scotia, the demonstrators took their grouse to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Independence Square.

Nine members of NJAC were charged with desecrating a place of worship, even though the then Archbishop Anthony Pantin and members of the clergy attested that there was no desecration of the Cathedral. The aftermath of these events would be the largest and most powerful and impactful mass movement for fundamental change in the history of the Caribbean.

Photo: Mourners march down Frederick Street on 9 April, 1970 during the funeral of the slain Basil Davis.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

Led by Chief Servant Makandal Daaga (then Geddes Granger), the population responded with 55 days of street demonstrations across T&T. Tens of thousands of demonstrators sought to re-define their nation, their region and their lives in the context of their history as they pursued a new and just society in Trinidad and Tobago.

In the process, the National Joint Action Committee introduced the concept of people’s politics into the life of this country. NJAC re-defined politics, a philosophy of governance and the exercise of power, from that of an elitist profession to one of a life source, with the people firmly rooted as the very heartbeat of governance.

In keeping with the new principles of People Politics, the national interest was given top priority and the people became the “supreme authority in the decision making process.”

In our booklet entitled From Slavery to Slavery, NJAC showed that Caribbean economies had continually evolved from one form of slavery to another. For instance, the great victory of the Haitian Revolution had led to slave uprisings across the region and slavery could no longer be maintained in its original form. Concessions had to be made, resulting in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the eventual abolition of slavery.

Likewise, in the 1920s and 1930s when Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler, Captain Andrew Cipriani and Adrian Cola Rienzi demanded workers’ rights and “home rule,” another concession, adult suffrage, was granted.

Photo: A Labour Day stamp depicts late labour leaders Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler (right) and Arthur Andrew Cipriani.
(Courtesy IRCP.Gov.TT)

The system of control and domination, however, became more sophisticated with time and guaranteed that, at each stage, wealth and power remained entrenched in the hands of the imperial powers.

In 1970, eight years after Independence, the state of our economy was reflected in the following statistics:

  • 90% of the oil industry wholly owned by foreigners
  • 60% of the money made in transport, storage and communications went to foreigners
  • 43% of the money made in construction was earned by foreign firms
  • In the Wholesale and Retail Distribution sector, foreign ownership was dominant in the larger establishments, e.g. the Canning’s group, Booker’s (Ross, Stephens, Woolworth’s, etc.),
  • Almost half of the land in estates over 200 acres was owned by foreigners.
  • In Tobago, which was an agricultural economy, 71% of the best land was owned by either foreigners or a small local elite.

The rest of the economy was owned by a small local white elite.

NJAC’s response was the mobilisation of the population to demand people control of the “commanding heights of the economy,” with the slogan, ‘We do not want crumbs, we want the whole bread.’ The result was far-reaching changes in the ownership and control of our economy.

Photo: A public demonstration outside the Royal Bank of Canada in 1970.
(Courtesy NJAC)

The demands being made by NJAC and the masses for the population to own and control the “commanding heights of the economy” were so strong that the then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams was virtually forced to buy the Bank of London and Montreal (BOLAM) within 24 hours (22– 23 March, 1970). Williams wanted to be able to announce in his Address to the Nation on 23 March that, as demanded by the Movement, T&T had acquired its own bank.

This was not all. Williams was able in his Address on National Reconstruction on 30 June, 1970 to announce that:

“… we have already gone further than any Caribbean territory except Cuba. The present position is as follows:

  • 100% national ownership of the Hilton Hotel
  • 100% national ownership of the Orange Grove Sugar Company
  • 100% national ownership of the new National Commercial Bank
  • 100% national ownership in public utilities: electricity, water, sewerage, transport
  • 100% national ownership of Radio Guardian
  • 90% national ownership of Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT)
  • 51% national ownership of the Port Landing Company
  • 51% national ownership of Cable and Wireless
  • 51% national ownership of the new company for the manufacture of particle board from bagasse
  • 50% national ownership of Trinidad Tesoro which had taken over from the former British Petroleum properties
  • 50% national ownership in the telephone system.
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

This is an indication of the fantastic transformation NJAC inspired in large sectors of the economy and which continued during the decade of the 1970s. There were great strategic benefits to be derived from these developments.

For the first time, thanks to the existence of the State sector, managerial positions could be secured on the basis of merit rather than on race. Qualified Africans and Indians now had the opportunity to apply their acquired knowledge and training to the national interest. It created the openings for education to serve as an effective means of social mobility.

The real failing was the corrupt practices the government allowed to infest these enterprises, and so enrich a few to the detriment of the masses. Today we continue to reap the bitter harvest of a corrupt, decadent system that is now a way of life.

Two principles which NJAC held very dearly were those of Justice and Equality, and, by extension, the fair treatment of all. NJAC felt strongly that one’s race, class or belonging to a minority or vulnerable group should in no way influence accessibility to opportunities, equal treatment under the law or equal access to all institutional State services.

Additionally, NJAC paid special attention to the status of women, youth and the elderly. NJAC’s position was: “Old and young, all belong in the New Society.” Our elders had to be honoured for their years of service; our women deserved to be respected as equal partners with our men in the creation of a better life for all citizens and our youth had to be prepared for the task of nation building.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago citizens march for racial unity on 12 March, 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

Recently we have witnessed an overwhelming global response to the film, Black Panther. Many have unwittingly referred to the film as a stimulant of African consciousness. However, more correctly, the film represents a response by the film industry to a reawakening of a growing consciousness among the African population that was planted and developed since during the 70s. Maybe there is some significance in the timing of the release of the film so close to the 48th anniversary of the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution on 26 February.

It is of note that the film features the involvement of a number of Caribbean persons in its cast. This has much significance because the Caribbean has always played a leading role in the Pan African movement.

In this regard, the Caribbean has produced the likes of Marcus Garvey (Jamaica) and Henry Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, CLR James and Makandal Daaga (Trinidad and Tobago).

NJAC’s deep appreciation of national unity was effectively illustrated with the March to Caroni on 12 March, 1970. It was an effort to bury the politics of race and open the doors to national unity. NJAC’s concept of People Politics envisioned all groups within the society working together with the common goal of creating a New and Just Society.

NJAC introduced principles to guide our people, including Honour the Old; Respect and Elevate the Woman; Love the Children; Prepare the Youth; Be a Brother, Be a Sister; Build the Family; Unite the Nation and Let the People Decide.

Photo: Iconic late Trinidad and Tobago thinker, writer and scholar, CLR James.
(Courtesy Thefamouspeople.com)

As we reflect on this momentous and most defining period in our nation’s history, let us remember the ideals of the movement: respect for the humanity of all sectors and persons within our community, the right of each individual to the opportunities for their fullest development and the pursuit of a dignified quality of life in keeping with the exceptional human and natural resources of our great nation.

Let us cleanse our minds and purify our hearts as we recognize that the New and Just Society will only be achieved through our appreciation of the sanctity of the human spirit as expressed through the individual.

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