Holistic approach to ethnic divisions

first_imgAs we reported in observance of the International Decade for People of African Descent, Guyana hosted the 2018 IDPAD Summit, which concluded yesterday. It brought together more than 60 academics, black activists and other expert speakers from around the world, to focus on addressing the plight of descendants of African slaves brought here by the Europeans through the implementation of possible solutions to issues affecting them as a people. The four-day conference was held at the Guyana Marriott Hotel under the theme “Where we are, Where we ought to be, How we get there”.It is hoped that the discussions were situated within challenges of the plural society created by the arrival of other ethnic groups: Portuguese, Indians and Chinese (and free Africans) — with the exception of the Amerindians — who were brought by the whites from all parts of the world to replace the Africans after the abolition of slavery in 1834. More than anything else, this is needed because of the debilitating politics that has evolved here.Separated chronologically to a large extent in their arrival, they were segregated into separate economic and geographical niches, with profound and lasting consequences for their future relationships. While the separation may have prevented widespread clashes, it further reinforced the initial cleavages of race/ethnicity, language, religion and culture, to demarcate social boundaries which were distinct and have proven long lasting.Guyanese politics, like all politics, is rooted in the structure of the society and the rules of the political game. The nature of the “faction” influences the political culture, political competition, and any political conflict. Unfortunately, the nature of the salient cleavage has remained a contested topic in Guyana, and the “conflict about the conflict” is a threshold issue that must be crossed before a stable democracy is established in Guyana. If the competitors for political power do not share a common framework for conceptualising their struggle, they would simply be talking past each other in any attempt at reconciliation.Political mobilization is always done along some actual or potential fault-line which has created political factions in the society.In Guyana, the cultural differences and origins (ethnicity) conjoined with “race” evolved as the most pertinent marker for political mobilisation. In his seminal work, Friedrich Barth argued that the defining feature of an ethnic group are not the particular elements of culture or kinship that differentiate it from other groups, but the mere fact that boundaries are perceived and persist. The membership criteria, and the membership itself, tend to change over time as people come and go, and invent and develop new traditions and ways of life; but the group itself, nevertheless, endures as a way of structuring social life.The dominant politicians of the modern era, especially Dr.  Cheddi Jagan and Mr Forbes Burnham, however, insisted that class was more “fundamental,” and worked to ensure “class consciousness”. In this way, they avoided dealing with the central reality of political action – ethnicity. While most countries are multicultural, and the cultural differences may be the most common axis of differentiation and even political cleavage between the groups, the societies do not all inevitably become as divided as Guyana and a number of other countries have become.In fact, these have earned themselves a special name in political science: deeply divided societies. The major variables in determining the difference in the intensity of the politics and whether the conflict may become undemocratic in multi-ethnic societies have been the rules of political competition, the relative sizes of the groups, the resources at their disposal, and the strategies of their leaders.In a world of scarce resources and all-pervasive governments, politicians do not find it difficult to persuade fellow group members that their social, economic and identity interests are better served if their group controls the state; that is, if they unite their political interests. The affirmation of themselves as a people and the economic interest served mutually reinforce each other.The challenge for Guyana is to make the struggle a win-win one.last_img read more