When the UNC was formed in 1989, apartheid – enforced separation of the races – still existed in South Africa and the struggle against that cruel, inhuman form of racism and was going strong, globally as well as in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress which fought against apartheid, was still in prison, and there was the worldwide movement to free him. During that time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu emerged as a main figure in fighting against apartheid — both globally and within South Africa — especially while Mandela was still in jail.
Desmond Tutu famously visited Trinidad in 1987 during this global crusade against discrimination.
The UNC was part of this worldwide struggle. The UNC led the fight against racism, discrimination and alienation in Trinidad and Tobago. These evils were perpetuated by the PNM long after colonialism ended.
It must always be remembered that the United National Congress got its name from the Indian National Congress spiritually led by Mahatma Gandhi, and the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela. This symbolised the struggle for unity and equality.
Observing Elections in South Africa’s first Multi-Racial Elections
Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and in 1994 South Africa had its first multiracial elections. The UNC had an opportunity to assist in those elections by participating in international observer teams.
Chandresh Sharma, was the first UNC MP for Fyzabad and a founding member of the party. He was one of the UNC members selected to go.
“I may have gone because I was the International Relations Officer. I was instrumental in the UNC in its formation years to establish party groups outside of Trinidad. So perhaps that might have contributed to my selection.”
“I am a foundation member of the UNC. I was outside there and part of my outreach work was to establish party groups for the UNC. So I was instrumental in making groups across the United States, in Canada as far as Vancouver, and some Caribbean islands. And all of this would amounts to the exposure.
The People’s Long Wait for the End of Apartheid Discrimination
Sharma remembers, “When we got to South Africa we joined other International observer teams. And we were broken up into smaller groups, but mixed. So there would be fairer reporting and fairer representation. So I worked with persons from other countries. The United Nations would have made it almost all other countries.”
Sharma vividly recalled, “I worked in a rural community. Of course there were high levels of poverty in the rural areas, and they were really left to fend for themselves. If you want to make a comparison, I was not working in Port of Spain, I was working in Cedros.”
“I think what they might have done is send the guys out to the rural areas and had the ladies in the areas where they had better access to bathrooms, and water and proper hygiene and so on.
One would understand that the rural areas had no proper washrooms, no restaurants.”
“And I would have met people who were just waiting. There was one particular person I remember he might have been 85 or 86 and he said to us that he was waiting to vote. And when he finished vote he would be ready to meet his maker. And strange enough he died the next day.
“And it was that kind of pattern. That kind of commitment from South Africans across the board.”
“It was very historic for all of us. There was an emotional connection because while half our population came from Africa, we wouldn’t have known where they came from. But just going to Africa sort of signaled where they may have come from.”
Meeting Desmond Tutu
He met Archbishop Tutu in the rural areas of South Africa, as the Archbishop was ensuring that the various political factions would not violently clash with each other.
“Desmond Tutu we saw on more than one occasion,” Sharma remembers. “Because he was a global peacemaker. And his presence was powerful in that it would cause South Africans on both sides to behave themselves well.”
“He was a simple man from what we picked up. Very much liked. Very much grassroots and active in maintaining peace and order.”
“Because we were meeting him at different places and different times, we were not meeting him as the Trinidad and Tobago delegation.”
“In different places the language would have been different. So he was talking English and also in whatever other languages to treat with his audience.”
“I don’t think he was in the campaign. He had a campaign of his own as a responsible, senior statesman. He was very successful in contributing to its proper conduct and peace.”
“He would have gone to what we might have turned the hot spots. The rural communities would have more than likely being more peaceful. They would have had no external forces.”
“Initially, the Zulus were not part of the merger. And that’s where that candidate came in and they had to go and print these 23 million plus stickers to accommodate it on the ballot.”
“The voter population of South Africa would have been 25 or 30 million people. What was very interesting was at some point a candidate joined in very late. Ballot papers had to be addressed to accommodate his late entry. Some merger, and they had to make these little stickers and manually attach it. The technology was perhaps not available to do it in any way differently.”
“It was a very well-oiled elections. It went very smoothly. Incident free.”
Meeting Nelson Mandela – Bombing of Hotels
“We had an opportunity, most of us, to meet Nelson Mandela,” remembers Sharma.
“Of course the security was extremely high. Two or three hotels I recall, we’re bombed. So we got an opportunity to meet and greet Nelson Mandela. I think he stayed at a huge hotel called Carlton Palace, and we were taken there for tea and so. Because of the high security concerns, it was not elaborate.”
Sharma told us an additional surprising fact.
“In fact, one of the hotels that we stayed in, I think it was a Holiday Inn, Vern Richards (UNC Chairman of the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation) and myself, we were roommates, and that hotel was bombed. We were there at the hotel when it was bombed.”
But he adds, “You know, saying it was bombed may sound huge, but you know in South Africa it was neither here nor there. Because of damage was not significant. It captured no huge attention. They had to move on to where the next bomb might be.”
“We do not know who set the bomb. We did not pay attention to those things. We were required to get out. They would have asked us to evacuate quickly. But because you would have had to be on the go because you don’t know where you’ll be stationed most of us would have had our stuff in our suitcases ready for travel at short notice.”
“I think we had gone back into the same hotel and continued staying. And they might have just relocated persons who might have been affected on the particular floor.”
“We weren’t really scared, because we were briefed by the UN security council. Every team was assigned a security officer. His or her purpose was to guide us, brief us, tell us what to be on the lookout for.”
“I do not think we had cell phones then. So the communication had to be in person largely.”
Fighting Discrimination in Trinidad and Tobago
This experience helped the UNC continue to fight against discrimination in Trinidad and Tobago under the PNM, which had ruled for 30 straight years from 1956 to 1986, during which time not a single Hindu ever sat in the cabinet of Trinidad and Tobago, for example. Other groups, even including the Shouter Baptists and the Muslims, also of course rural areas in general, as well, were very much discriminated against and alienated by the PNM.
The fall of apartheid happened in 1994, one year before the fall of the PNM in 1995. The arrival of the UNC to power was the first time Hindus were part of a Cabinet in Trinidad and Tobago since the PNM came in power in 1956, the first time a Trade Unionist led the Government, and also the first time a woman became Attorney-General. The UNC broke so many barriers.
Sharma recalls, “The influence of the South African elections would have had some crossover effect in the minds of people here and elsewhere. And of course our campaign would have been similar to that of Nelson Mandela, because Nelson Mandela was also fighting discrimination. And his life was one of struggle.”
“So Mr Panday at the time reflected a lot of Nelson Mandela. He was perhaps seen in many quarters as a local Nelson Mandela, having been to prison himself and having gone through similar challenges.”
So I am certain that led to a renewal of commitment and engagement and people coming out more and to the crossover appeal.”
“I had raised in the parliament at some point, geopolitical discrimination which was very evident. If you recall Central never had a high school for ex number of years because that was part of the geopolitical discrimination when you look at the resources an expenditure of resources across the country. Where you see the good roads or electricity or the water or community centers amd public facilities on the whole. Less of it in rural communities.”
“That was part of the geopolitical discrimination that was very evident. Of course after a while people start to realize this themselves.”
“You will recall the death of Cyril Rajaram in Pointe-a-Pierre. We got involved in that campaign with new vigor and new drive. And we won that seat [taking it away from the PNM].
You started to see a new train of thinking, a new train of activities, a new train of work being executed by us in the UNC.”
“So it was not that difficult for us to have won 17 seats in 1995. And then we had more in 2000, and then we had 18-18 in 2001, although we had gotten more votes mind you.”
With the UNC in government, many historic acts against discrimination were passed, most famously the Equal Opportunities Act and Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day.
The Equal Opportunities Act ensured that citizens would be protected from discrimination based on race, religion, and gender, or ability. The PNM opposed it strongly, and they still do.
Today, the Equal Opportunities Commission under the PNM amazingly appears to be engaging in acts of discrimination itself against Vera Bhajan, born without arms. That is quite shameful, but true to form with the PNM.
The struggle against discrimination continues today, as can be seen in the PNM’s ban on open pyre cremations, which was only recently removed after years of protest and legal action.
Advice for Young People
From this experience, Chandresh Sharma offers this advice to young UNC party members,
“Any opportunity through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or other bodies for our Members of Parliament to travel on work related matters only adds value. And it must be encouraged.”
“Sometimes one may feel that travel is a luxury thing. Often times it is not. Many times in these things you travel economy. You stay at lower end hotels. And the other things that may be lent to it, food and so on, are not your premium things. You don’t get a premium allowance. If you have to tip people you have to tip them yourself. If you have to give them a little $100, it’s on your own. So it’s all part of the sacrifice of learning to serve better.”
“I’ve been to Haiti as an election observer, that was when Aristide was elected. I went to Canada as part of the CPA delegation. To the UK, and other places as well. We’ve gone to India as Parliamentarians of Indian origin.
“The ability to engage others and network is tremendous. You make lifelong friends. And even though we may not necessarily be in office, the association continues. And from time to time people will inquire from you about something, or they want a piece of information.”
Sharma observes, “In the current scenario, younger UNC members are not familiar, nor are they exposed to some of these things. And there are very little opportunities to pass on. Because they all get busy after they get elected into office. Social media, I sometimes think it is both a plus and a minus. It can be a curse, because social media allows you to present yourself in any scenario. That may appear favorable. But what is missing is a grassroots connection. To reach out and to build from the ground up.”
Members of the UNC, and the public generally, should be aware of this history of the party, fighting discrimination nationally, and also being linked to the international struggle.
That is what the UNC represents, and we need to continue and build upon that legacy in the future.