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Youthful exuberance... for good

Lance Neita

Sunday, August 05, 2018

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The first time I heard the phrase “youthful exuberance” associated with a politician was from the famous slap on the wrists administered to Phillip Paulwell by his then prime minister, P J Patterson, in the early 1990s. The expression was used to absolve Paulwell from the negative fallout associated with the NetServ negotiations.

Several years later the phrase turned up again, contained in a tribute written by Professor Rex Nettleford in a citation to Edward Seaga on the conferment of Fellow of the Institute of Jamaica on May 1, 2006. In its presentation to the former prime minister and cultural icon, the Institute of Jamaica argued that Seaga — “a public servant extraordinaire” — had made a seminal contribution to arguably “the most effective, and the most positively impactful element in the growth and development of the Jamaican people in the post-colonial period of Jamaica's still burgeoning history”.

“The Most Honourable Edward Seaga,” said Nettleford, “had brought youthful and feisty exuberance to the challenge of engaging the creative potential of the people from below.”

It was this 'youthful and feisty exuberance' that had obviously shaped the thought process of a young Seaga who, in 1953, had immersed himself into an unprecedented research life that took him into the depths of Jamaica's folklore in the only honest way he knew of doing it — living the experience with the poorest of the poor at Buxton Town in St Catherine, and in a room at Salt Lane behind the Coronation Market for two years.

“Jamaica has reaped the benefit of intellectual support rooted in painstaking field research and scholarly documentation by the Harvard-trained sociologist,” said Nettleford.

And, further, according to the citation, he had taken the fight to the Western-oriented kind of cultural mobilisation that held sway in Jamaica at that time and that kept submerged “the artistic traditions of Africa which were being treated with ambivalence and made largely sterile”.

By the time he was 30 years old he was leading the fight from his chair both as minister of development and welfare and as architect of the 1965 Five-Year Independence Plan, exhibiting a passionate advocacy of making the people from below a genuine source of energy for creative action in building the new Jamaica.

According to Nettleford, the implication of this course of action for national development was indeed evident to Edward Seaga, who understood how the inherited sense of inferiority rooted in a history of denigration “would only continue to deprive the country's vast majority of the energy and will needed for production and patriotic commitment, or for a sense of place and purpose in a country all were expected to call home”.

Fast-forward to 2018, where Seaga has been much in the news lately, and has even taken to the press himself to respond — unnecessarily, I think — to those critics who would take pot shots at him, and perhaps his worst fear, denigrating his legacy to national-building.

He need not fear, as far as that legacy is concerned. Perhaps pot shots are all that they can take. This unusual and extraordinary Jamaican, with so many facets to his life and leadership, his career, his contributions, his service, his leadership, and the wealth of creativity, both within himself and what he has drawn from countless others, stands above them all.

Nor does he need to defend himself. Political analyst and journalist Carl Stone said of him in 1992, “I don't think that there is any other person in the post-war Caribbean who has built and left so many monuments for posterity, so many institutions, and so many new beginnings, and so many new ideas in the sphere of public management. The list is awesome and formidable.”

Stone said that his first memory of Seaga goes back to Spanish Town Road “when I saw this little man teaching from a political platform and talking to the people about national economic policy with rapt attention from the crowd. Seaga was raising the level of public awareness by refusing to talk down to the people, and by trying to raise their information levels”.

In a Gleaner article in 2005, the late Ian Boyne said Edward Seaga brought “a comprehensiveness of vision and a depth of understanding of the strengths, ingenuity, creativity, and centrality of the underclass that was unusual”.

And, in a famous turnaround from his own anti-Seaga position that he had taken in the 1970s, Boyne declared that the Marxists from The University of the West Indies, for ideological reasons; and the PNP, for partisan reasons, were busy demonising Seaga in the 1970s and beyond, failing to see that it was his rootedness in the culture of the Jamaican people that made communism and socialism so repugnant to him… “the crusade to cast Seaga as an alien [I man born ya] is the most despicable thing which has been done to him. It is time for the Left to publicly apologise to him!”

I have followed Seaga's journey with some fascination since I first 'discovered' him in the media following his 'haves and have-nots' speech in the Upper House in 1961.

We in faraway rural Jamaica, still very young and totally unexposed to the pulse of public life and excitement of big city Kingston, watched as he, a young white Jamaican with a Syrian name, repeatedly thrashed the great, black power advocates such as Dudley Thompson (“the burning spear”) and John Maxwell at the Kingston Western polls. To beat Thompson, Maxwell, and Millard Johnson in the heart and heat of Kingston in the 1960s he had to be a remarkable man.

Save for Alexander Bustamante, he was perhaps the most exciting of the 1962 politicians on both sides of the House. His dark glasses, serious demeanour; his piercing fighting talk at public meetings; his intellectual reasoning in the House and in the newspapers; his red shirt youth brigade that morphed into the famous Tivoli band; his development of Tivoli as a model community to the rest of the world; his 1,000 village concept at Independence time; and the obvious faith and confidence reposed in him by Bustamante, which made him a man to watch, and in our distant case, read about.

In those early days I saw him once — when the Jamaica Labour Party's victory motorcade came to May Pen following the 1967 election. Some people were actually told to stay behind closed doors as the cavalcade would include “dem West Kingston people that follow Mr Seaga about, and yuh know what dat means; don't leave yuh yard”.

But a glimpse of some young men dressed, yes, in red shirts, pausing for lunch under a tree in Muir Park convinced me that there was nothing sinister about the gatherings and, with my budding journalist curiousity, I got as close to the party bigwigs as I could to hear them speak from the piazza of Storks DeRoux Hardware in the town square.

Lo and behold I got close enough to hear Donald Sangster, then prime minister in his own right, asking Eddie if he thought they should start the speeches now. “Yes,” Eddie replied, and he went on to make the first speech which introduced Sangster to the crowd as “a very young man, see him here, he has a long way to go as our leader”.

As a footnote, only three weeks later Sangster was felled by brain haemorrhage. He died on April 12, four days after he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and two months after he became prime minister.

Seaga was the youngest of the remarkable Cabinet team selected by Bustamante to lead the first independent Government. He recalls in his autobiography the story of how he first met Bustamante.

He had no early political yearnings, and his sojourns in Buxton Town and Salt Lane were concentrated entirely on his social research. Living in the inner city near to a huge garbage dump, “Dungle”, he had a room next door to the Number Seven revival band, which, according to him, was the most bustling concentration of vending, hustling, and all kinds of street activities.

However, it was impossible for him to keep far from politics, and he actually met and had a deep conversation with Norman Manley at Drumblair before he met Bustamante. They spoke about art and Seaga was impressed by Manley's image as an articulate man with an outstanding mind.

A couple years later he got a call from his father that Bustamante wanted to meet him. “Call me Busta,” said the tall elderly man with a shock of white hair framing a handsome rugged face. Out of respect he didn't call him Busta, but they had a friendly conversation with plenty of uproarious laughter.

“I warmed to him,” said Seaga. “his personality was the opposite of my intense reserved disposition.”

He left having a good feeling for the gentleman. He did some backroom work for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in the 1958 Federal elections, but it was after the JLP defeat in the 1959 elections that he said he got the surprise of his life. In a rather amusing incident, he was visiting Bustamante at his Tucker Avenue home. Miss Gladys Longbridge, Bustamante's private secretary, was present on the veranda with them when Bustamante said to her teasingly, “Miss Longbridge, you see anyone here that I have appointed to the Legislative Council?” She answered promptly with a sly smile, “Yes, Chief, Eddie.”

Bustamante then turned to me and said, “Son, I have appointed you to the Legislative Council.”

“I was stunned,” said Seaga, “as I never expected it.” The formalised political system was never before considered by him as a career path.

And that's how he plunged into Jamaica's political life.

That was 1959. Forty-seven years later his legacy to Jamaica was summed up on May 1, 2006 by the Institute of Jamaica.

Of such, indeed, are the special gifts and the no less special contribution of time, energy, foresight and sustained dedication to the shaping of a modern Jamaica through the exercise of intellect and the application of effort in order to achieve — written by Rex Nettleford for the Institute of Jamaica on the occasion of Edward Seaga's acceptance into the institute's community of Fellows.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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