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Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa: Rescind the Deferred Decision to Confer the O.R. Tambo Award to Forbes Burnham

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We, the undersigned, condemn the choice of Forbes Burnham as the intended recipient, on April 27, 2013, of South Africa’s Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo (Oliver Tambo Award).  We call on the South African government to rescind this deferred decision and cancel the award.


Even a cursory investigation reveals that Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, a late President of Guyana, was disastrous for Guyana and its people, as head of a corrupt, brutal and murderous regime, replete with election rigging, illegal referendums, and an imposed Constitution in 1980.  Internationally, it is also known that Burnham was an agent of imperialism, associated with the foreign policy goals of the US, France and other colonial powers.  No amount of superficially progressive foreign policy rhetoric can be allowed to cover up, then or now, the violence of Burnham’s domestic policies and their legacies. This award sets a dangerous precedent, whereby other dictators who cloaked themselves in external Pan-Africanist, anti-apartheid, or anti-colonial rhetoric, while pursuing their despotic practices at home, may now become eligible for such awards and honors.


It is an embarrassment that the Government of South Africa made the decision to confer this award.  The award is an affront to the legacy and memory of Walter Rodney, Father Darke, Ohene Koama, Edward Dublin, and the numerous others who paid with their lives or liberty for challenging the increasing repression of the Burnham government. Neither Rodney’s assassination in June 1980, nor the other murders of that period have been investigated to this day, despite numerous calls.


The plan for this award sullies the revolutionary life and work of Oliver Tambo. It sullies the name and reputation of the African National Congress, and the great nation of South Africa. In local terms, it is tantamount to honoring the killers of Steve Biko or Chris Hani. While South Africa claims through this award to “to reflect the spirit of a non-racial, non-sexist democracy where a culture of human rights prevails,” they plan to honor a man who used racism and racial division to rule with violence in Guyana.


Tambo, Rodney, and the working peoples of Guyana, like those of the whole Pan-African world, are the ones who resisted the imposed colonial racial divisions, and fought apartheid in South Africa and everywhere else it cropped up in our world.  Burnham does not deserve to be mentioned in this company. Unless revoked and canceled, this award will be an affront to oppressed peoples everywhere, who fight against injustice and colonialism, and who hold up South Africa as a symbol of that freedom struggle, against apartheid, injustice, and oppression. It is a breach of the people's memory and knowledge of history. We reject this twisting of history. We stand with Rodney and other people’s historians, in safeguarding the truths of revolutionary struggles for liberation throughout the world.

We call on people of conscience everywhere, and especially those in South Africa, to repudiate the award to this intended recipient. We stand in solidarity, as did Walter Rodney in all of his life’s work, scholarship and activity, with the spirit and tradition of the anti-apartheid struggle. We call on the government of South Africa to withdraw and cancel this ill-conceived award.  We call on all people of conscience to assist us in spreading this call, to the far corners of the world.

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