Fri | Jul 28, 2017

Gleaner greats at 52; and Charter of Rights - Why 10 on the 52nd anniversary?

Published:Sunday | August 10, 2014 | 8:00 AM
In this April 1967 Gleaner photo, The Jamaican Regiment takes the coffin bearing the body of Sir Donald Sangster from the Kingston Parish Church. He was buried at the George VI Memorial Park. - File

Martin Henry, Columnist

On Independence Day, The Gleaner ran seven sets of 10 greats since Independence. I would have loved to have been the proverbial fly on the wall in the editorial room, or better still to have had a seat at the table, during the discussions on which sets of greats to include and how many of each.

I have been labouring on the matter of more extensive documentation of the nation's history, warts and all, and The Gleaner is the pre-eminent recorder of our story of the last 180 years and a great source of a more balanced history than the heroic history which governments prefer to be written and taught.

Clearly, 52 items in each category could not fit into one day's edition of the paper, so I guess 10 is as good as any other smallish number.

The paper chose to lead with '10 Great Sports Moments'. Not surprising, since in the face of serious economic and governance challenges, the people, including their political leaders, are seeing our moments of greatness and our best achievements more and more in terms of sports and music and, more broadly, culture. There is also a list of '10 Great Reggae Songs'.

While the sports list has half of its 10 items since 2005, the Golden Age of sprint, the reggae list has nothing younger than 1995, Buju Banton's Untold Stories. The deterioration of the music in dancehall and its growing two-way links with gangsterism and lawlessness is a touchy subject not talked about enough.

Considering its own business, the newspaper might have had its biggest challenge with selecting '10 Big News Stories'. Some good picks have been included. But considering that Independence is centred around state and government, there are some great candidates in this area which didn't make it on to The Gleaner's list. The death of a serving prime minister (Donald Sangster) and the resignation of another (Bruce Golding) under conditions which threatened the very integrity of the State and having to appear before a commission of enquiry certainly qualify as big, very big, stories.

Leadership transitions

And so do the transitions of leadership of the political parties and the affiliated trade unions in the 1960s from the founding generation, the nationalist and self-government generation going back to the 1930s to post-Independence leadership. The telescope effect is a big problem in writing history. Near events, living memory events, tend to loom large, and further ones appear small in the distance.

Some other major milestones over the 52 years of Independence on Henry's list as markers of our progression, if not progress, as an independent state: The birth and death of Air Jamaica, 'the little piece of Jamaica which flies'. The gas strikes 'rebellion' against the authority of the State. The time in the 1960s when Jamaica became the largest producer of bauxite in the world. The repatriation of Marcus Garvey's remains (1964).

The times when the one-millionth and the two-millionth tourist arrived in one season. The ending of banana exports after Tropical Storm Gustav in 2008, with Jamaica having been the cradle of the world trade in the fruit from the 1870s and the world's leading producer in the 1930s.

The announcement of free education as the biggest - and most precipitate! - element of the Manley social revolution of the 1970s.

The times, of great symbolic importance in the life of the nation, when the murder rate reached 500 (1990, not counting the spike for the bloody 1980 general election), 1,000 (2002), and 1,500 (2005); and when the sliding dollar reached five (January 1985), 10 (May 1991), 25 (March 1992), 50 (December 2002), and 100 (June 2013), to the US$.

The closure of the state-owned, BBC-modelled Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, sole TV broadcaster for the first 30-plus years of Independence and established right after Independence to drive culture and development through radio and television. The closure of the Jamaica Railway Corporation, which had served the country since 1845 as one of the first established outside of Europe, and the opening of Highway 2000. And the coming of Digicel.

While I want to avoid the telescoping effect, if Police Commissioner Owen Ellington has in fact resigned under external pressure, this is a big story for a small country, possibly a first in 52 years.

The Gleaner is inviting everybody else to write their list, and, I suppose, to criticise theirs.

The Gleaner lost its way badly with the list of '10 Outstanding Business Leaders'. If this is reflective of the entire Independence period and a consideration of reach and impact (rather than of diplomatic balancing), the list could hardly exclude all of these: Aaron or Mayer Matalon, Carlton Alexander, Butch Stewart, Maurice Facey, Charles Henderson-Davis, and possibly Michael Lee Chin.

Outstanding gangsters

And in the business of balance, if we are running outstanding business leaders on the one hand, The Gleaner owes us a list of outstanding gangsters! The Big Don and his gang have been defining features of our independence history and politics.

Among the '10 Important Pieces of Legislation' The Gleaner has selected is the 2011 Charter of Rights. I concur easily. This has been the most extensive and far-reaching amendment to the Independence Constitution since we haven't managed to get around yet to removing the monarchy as head of government in favour of a republic, despite the abundance of talk since the 1970s.

The Charter of Rights has significantly expanded and 'modernised' the rights and freedoms of Jamaican citizens, but without any significant strengthening of the state apparatus for protection and enforcement. Among the exotic new rights are the rights of a child to free education at the pre-primary and primary levels and the right "to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage".

In an important precedent-setting test case, four Jamaicans are now suing the state for breach of their environmental rights arising from fires at the Riverton waste disposal site. A deluge of similar suits could easily follow.

One of the things we haven't done enough of in independence is test the lawfulness of the actions of the State and the interpretations of the Constitution.

And Audley Shaw has threatened to have the courts decide the constitutionality of recent tax laws. But commendably, the Senate only passed the bills after weighing the objections raised inside and outside of Parliament and with eight amendments.

The Charter of Rights says, "The State has an obligation to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and freedoms." In this regard, the Jamaican State has been an abject failure in Independence. The fundamental business of the State, before economic management, education, health, or any other 'service', is to ensure law and order, public safety, the security of life and property, and the delivery of justice. The Jamaican State hasn't done well in these core areas, nor in economic management for that matter.

We console ourselves with the accomplishments of the few greats in sports, music and culture, and in a vague social and political empowerment of the people while they have got killed and maimed in increasing numbers, tens of thousands of unresolved court cases clog the justice system, and the currency has slid against the US$ from 1:1 past 100: 1.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.