Both parties lack vision
The last public address of Norman Manley to the annual conference of the political party he founded contains the following often-quoted statement: "I say that the mission of my generation was to win self-government for Jamaica, to win political power, which is the final power for the black masses of my country from which I spring.
"I am proud to stand here today and say to you who fought that fight with me, say it with gladness and pride, mission accomplished for my generation."
That mission was easy enough to accomplish, since, after World War II, Britain herself was on a mission to be rid of her expensive and troublesome colonies. Her plan to cobble most of her Caribbean territories into a federation was stymied by Bustamante, who pushed us instead into political independence. I am not sure that the Manley-Bustamante generation can honestly claim "mission accomplished". It is Britain who can claim to have completed a successful divestment.
Yet the period 1930-1960 did see an awakening of Jamaican nationalism through literature and art and music, and it began with Marcus Garvey and Edelweiss Park. When I learnt history at school in the 1950s and early '60s, it was British history.
Philip Sherlock, a young history teacher at Calabar High School, asked his headmaster: "Couldn't we teach some West Indian history, some Jamaican history? I will never get over the fact that he looked at me with a rather pitying smile and said: 'My boy, you have no history.' And this was something he wasn't saying in a cruel way. It was something that was accepted. We have no history. I began to question it".
That generation of Jamaicans discovered that we had a history of our own, and the excitement was palpable in the early issues of the Jamaican Historical Review (from 1945) and the Jamaican Historical Society Bulletin (from 1952) as new discoveries were made. Sherlock himself went on to co-author Caribbean history textbooks for schools. Slowly, the idea that we were a people - the Jamaican people - began to gain currency.
This was the fertile period in Jamaica's history (before the emergence of the PNP and the JLP) which saw the growth of farmers' and teachers' groups, cooperatives and credit unions, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and the like, which began the construction of a new Jamaican society from the bottom up.
A turning point in Jamaica's social history was the formation in 1937 of Jamaica Welfare Ltd. Lawyer Manley represented several big banana companies operating in Jamaica, and he persuaded them to donate one cent per stem of bananas exported to create a social-development fund.
Manley coopted progressive young men and women like Thom Girvan and Ruddy Burke and Louise Bennett into Jamaica Welfare Ltd to travel around Jamaica offering training and forming community groups to build up social capital.
There was a special new spirit of volunteerism in this land. "We're out to build a new Jamaica" was the song, and many saw the vision.
The PNP emerged out of this social ferment, and incorporated these progressive elements (including Bustamante and his Trades Union) into their national movement.
Bustamante observed that this national movement was somewhat elitist and middle class, and with his union, he formed the Jamaica Labour Party from a coalition of the working-class and big business, which trounced the PNP in the first general election under adult suffrage in 1944.
Jamaica eventually gained political independence 22 years later, but has not known what to do with it. Both the PNP and the JLP seem to have lost their way.
In that final speech where he declared "mission accomplished" for his generation, Norman Manley went on to say: "And what is the mission of this generation? ... It is ... reconstructing the social and economic society and life of Jamaica".
Jamaica's young people yearn for this reconstruction, for this nation to become "the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business", and I believe that if our young people thought that either the PNP or the JLP had the vision and the plan to take us there by 2030 or even 2050, they would turn out to vote, and even become party workers.
But the JLP and the PNP have deteriorated into gangs competing for the opportunity to raid the national treasury, to accept tribute from the private sector, to distribute the political spoils to their supporters, including providing jobs for the boys and girls.
That is why the coming general election will have the lowest turnout in Jamaican history. When will new leaders with new vision emerge to again excite us?
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org