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NJAC Rededication: Economic transformation and the birth of the people’s sector 

“[…] Ownership of our economy was still dominated primarily by foreigners, supported by, a local predominantly white elite. Under NJAC’s leadership, however, people were moving for true independence, which could only be achieved through ownership and control of the economy.

“The new slogan was: ‘We do not want crumbs, We want the whole bread’—a demand for national control of the commanding heights of the economy…”

The following is the sixth column in an NJAC series on their contribution to Trinidad and Tobago society after the ‘Black Power Revolution’ of 1970:

Photo: Woodford Square in Port of Spain.

A dominant feature of the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution of 1970 was the extent to which it was driven by the growing participation of the masses. Chief Servant Makandal Daaga and NJAC appreciated the importance of the full participation of the people in the nation-building exercise.

They knew that the deeper the participation of the people in the entire process of national transformation, the greater the heights of achievement the movement would be guaranteed. To facilitate this, NJAC introduced the ‘people’s parliament’, an institution in which the people could participate to voice their opinions and make decisions on matters affecting their lives.

This initiative to bring the masses directly into the decision-making process was introduced very early, as a process of grave importance.

The very first people’s parliament was held at Woodford Square and was convened on Wednesday 4 March 1970, less than a week after the first demonstration of 26 February. Three days later, Woodford Square was renamed the ‘people’s parliament’. This was a very clear and powerful message of NJAC’s positive and decisive intent and actions on having the masses participate fully in the decision-making process from the very beginning—beyond the very passive role of casting a ballot, which they were brainwashed to believe was their singular role.

At its very infancy, the movement had declared to the world that it was, indeed, a People’s Revolution, for People’s Participation and People’s Power. For the very first time in our history, with NJAC’s guidance, T&T experienced true people’s politics.

Photo: A demonstration at Woodford Square during the Trinidad and Tobago Revolution of 1970.

The masses began to gather in the People’s Parliament of Woodford Square nightly to discuss national issues, find practical solutions to problems and then implement them in the communities. Persons who could not attend a session, could pass through the parliament (Woodford Square) the next day and read of the discussions held and the decisions taken on the notice board provided for that purpose.

As people examined the nationwide conditions of life, they began to question the significance of our ‘Independence’ and, by extension, our very nationhood. People were awakening to the reality that ‘Independence’ had given us nothing but unfulfilled expectations.

There was no feeling or sense of belonging to a new collective effort. Not even a fresh community or national spirit for progress. It was basically ‘same ole, same ole. All we seemed to have gotten from independence was an unfounded pride in a flag, a national anthem, some watchwords and frivolous window dressing in a land where every creed and race had never found an equal place.

At the fundamental human level, the masses were still trapped in cesspools of poverty and dehumanisation across the land. Independence never translated into greater participation of one and all in national affairs. It did not guarantee equality of opportunity in the receipt of relevant education, quality health care and equitable opportunities for advancement.

In Tobago, for example, life was such a hellhole of hopelessness that mass emigration resulted in a 10% decline in the population during the eight years following independence (1962–70). Similarly, in Trinidad, there was an exodus of thousands of professionals and skilled workers. Having their sacrifices and humanity disrespected at home, they were driven to migrate and carry their expertise abroad to the benefit of other countries, especially North America and Europe.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister the late Dr Eric Williams (far left, foreground) and long-standing Cabinet members, the late Kamaluddin Mohammed (far right, foreground) and Errol Mahabir (second from right) stare into the distance.

Ownership of our economy was still dominated primarily by foreigners, supported by, a local predominantly white elite. Under NJAC’s leadership, however, people were moving for true independence, which could only be achieved through ownership and control of the economy.

The new slogan was: ‘We do not want crumbs, We want the whole bread’—a demand for national control of the commanding heights of the economy. As a result of NJAC’s advocacy, there was a massive growth in the state sector. The state’s ownership (or part ownership) grew from eight enterprises to 67 in a short period of time.

Government’s ownership or participation in these enterprises created opportunities for qualified Africans and Indians to access to positions previously reserved exclusively for whites before 1970. The doors were opened to become directors or managers in production, finance, IT, HR or diverse other positions.

The relentless, just demands of the people for economic and financial power forced then prime minister Dr Eric Williams to acquire the Bank of London and Montreal (BOLAM) overnight, so he could announce, on 23 March 1970 that we had our own “National Commercial Bank” (now First Citizens Bank). It was a huge victory for the people who sacrificed for this. Additionally, the financial sector was localised. All banks and insurance companies were required to have a minimum of 51% local ownership.

The movement also inspired the creation of a ‘People’s Sector, opening the doors for small businesses and participation of the masses in the development of the new economy. One of the remarkable achievements of the T&T Revolution of 1970, was the growth of this ‘People’s Sector’.

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

Derrick R Browne, writing in his book Financing the People’s Sector: Credit Delivery for Small Business Development in Trinidad & Tobago stated: “Social and political upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s led by the Black Power movement gave additional incentive for the localisation of important sectors, including the financial sector and for economic diversification. These socio-economic disturbances which generated strong criticism of the foreign banking sector led to the expression of a need for a ‘People’s Sector’, comprised of small scale operations from among the people.”

NJAC’s drive to build a ‘New Consciousness’ engendered greater confidence in the population in their business activities. The ‘People’s Sector’ was non-existent before 1970. The masses were virtually denied access to the business fraternity. Total involvement in business activity between the two major ethnic groups amounted to a mere 8% (3.8% African and 4% Indian). The dominant saying at the time was ‘black people can’t run business’.

NJAC had to launch a strategic campaign to dispel and trash the devious spread of this myth. We gave our people new confidence in their business activities, directly influencing the birth of the ‘drag brothers’ (making and selling handbags, sandals and other small items) on Frederick Street and the spread of such business initiatives across the nation. A new generation of entrepreneurs burst into the business world.

The youth in particular were confident and enterprising. They got involved in commercial activities and small-scale productive endeavours. They formed or joined co-operative societies and credit unions. They were quick to see opportunities and were steadfast in their efforts to grasp them. The new generation was not going to be left out.

Penelope Forde and Ann Joseph, writing in their book, The Financial Sector in Trinidad and Tobago, in 1997, had this to say: “The year 1970 represented a turning point in the nation’s social, economic and financial history. From an economic and political standpoint, that year was an integral part of the nation’s transition from a colonial dependency to a recently independent nation.” This is indeed an emphatic confirmation that the T&T Revolution of 1970 laid a solid foundation for true independence.

Photo: The Drag Brothers showcase their leather sandals.
(Copyright Discover TNT)

This ‘Rejuvenation and Rebirth’ within the population was driven by a growing commitment to self-reliance and true independence. There was a massive upsurge in support for local business initiatives and home-grown institutions by the same people who had been ridiculed as having no national loyalty or even intelligence. So powerful was this upsurge, that 1970 was proclaimed the ‘Year of Small Businesses’, 1971 ‘Co-operatives Year’ and 1972 ‘Credit Unions Year’.

It is also on record, that during the 1970s, credit unions achieved record-breaking growth in their asset base of over 1,000%. People were exhibiting a new sense of ownership of their nation and destiny.

Not only was there a strong ambition to see a better life for all, but equally important, the people began to feel a part of the new emerging economy. Small entrepreneurs blazed a trail in the ‘People’s Sector’ or led the way as managers in the state sector, ushering in a new era in the economic life of Trinidad and Tobago.

Economic security must be guaranteed to all and the economy must be geared to serve the needs of all the people. —  NJAC’s People’s Declaration of Policy.

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