When Guyanese Revolutionary Walter Rodney returned to Guyana in the mid-1970s, he joined a socialist organisation called the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) to fight against Fordes Burnham’s dictatorship. By 1979, the WPA’s advocacy for unity between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese, bread and justice drew thousands of Guyanese working people into its ranks. The WPA also attracted support from members of the Guyanese and wider Caribbean community in England. One of them, Anne Braithwaite, spoke to ROAPE’s Chinedu Chukwudinma about her experience as a founding member of the WPA Support Group UK ahead of the 41st anniversary of Walter Rodney’s assassination.
Tell me about your early years in Guyana and the UK, how did you become politically involved, where did it start?
In Guyana, I was not politically active at all. Guyana gained independence when I was in the middle of high school in 1966. Looking back, I’m amazed that I didn’t do more and that I wasn’t more engaged with independence. I think having fun really was my main thing at school and between school and coming to England. Not a lot of political engagement at all. My parents were sort of typical; you know, I guess working class with middle class ambitions. My mother was a nurse and was meant to be very good at school. She was one of those really bright girls. She was that kind of hard-working person, but not herself directly political. My father came from what would be considered aspiring middle class, but he himself never exerted himself too much about getting into the middle class. He was somebody who was into enjoying life and, you know, just doing what he liked. He was a security guard and was happy with that.
Going on to school, I spent formative years in primary school in a village in Guyana called Victoria. I realised later on that one of the teachers must have told my parents that they should put me in for the scholarship as it was called at the time. And so, they decided to send me to school in Georgetown where my aunt was a teacher, which was quite far from where we lived at the time. My parents lived in Lodge while my aunt lived in Kitty. So, it was quite a long distance to get to school. But I went to school there and managed to get a scholarship to go to Bishop’s High, which was the elite girl’s school. The two elite schools were Bishop’s High for girls and Queen’s College for boys, and I went to Bishop’s High. In the early days, it would only have been white folks and light folks who went there and the children of diplomats and the planter class who would have gone. I started at Bishop’s High in 1963. It was a delayed start because in 1962 we had that a big explosion of racial violence that was very disruptive today. Like COVID-19 is now, it was very disruptive for schooling, there was a general strike they were major disruptions, and the start of the new school year was just one of them. But I started school in 1963, Guyana got independence in 1966, and I left school in 1969.
After leaving school I worked for a couple of years in Guyana, I work at a sugar estate called Wales Sugar Estate, which has been closed down now. But at the time, it was a functioning sugar estate. I worked there for a while, which meant leaving home very early in the mornings because I had to get two to three forms of transport and then a ferry to get there at seven o’clock. I subsequently got a job in Georgetown, which was much more attractive because it was much easier to get to. The job was with another state institution, which was the Guyana rice board. It was called the Rice Marketing Board at the time. It was an admin job, bookkeeping and mainly accounting.
I realised afterwards that I got both jobs because of my privilege, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had two forms of privilege going for me, one, I was a Bishop’s high school girl. The second one, I was black African. By that time, the government that was in power was the People’s National Congress (PNC) of Forbes Burnham, which was backed mainly by African Guyanese. And the PNC had changed the senior staff in most of these state-organised workplaces because Indian Guyanese or supporters of the rival People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had usually staffed these workplaces. So there was an active attempt to get African people in. It was not until much later that I realised why I got hired. I got hired really easily as I didn’t have to ask anyone. Usually in Guyana, the way things work is that you have to know somebody and ask somebody to help you. I simply wrote applications or turned up. I don’t think I even told anybody about it, I just applied for jobs and got them. Because they were my first jobs, I didn’t realise how lucky I was and how privilege was playing to my advantage.
Shortly before I left Guyana, privilege also played to my advantage when I got hired at the CARIFESTA in Guyana, which was the first Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts. I was then working at the Rice Board and I was told that I received a secondment to work for the festival for six months – I was working with the CARIFESTA secretariat. The crazy thing was that I actually got my salary from the rice board but also got paid as if I was doing a separate job at the festival secretariat. I got tickets to everything going, so was really popular with my mates. By that time, I bought a car and life was wonderful.
When did you end up going to the UK then?
I wanted to leave Guyana partly because of the racial violence that had happened in 1962. And, in general, it was considered anybody in Guyana who was going to be someone had to go away to do something, usually study. I got a letter from a cousin of mine who lived in London inviting me to come in 1972 …and that was the choice that I made.
Life for me in Guyana was apart from working with just having fun. That was the mindset that I arrived in London with. Within a couple of days of me being in London, another cousin of mine said she was going to take me to a party. I’ve literally been here just for a matter of days. And I think it was at the International Students House around the Bloomsbury area, where I met quite a few other Guyanese. The party was in somebody’s room in the hall of residence. That same cousin took me to another party at a student centre where there was a bigger space and a much larger crowd. And I met a whole lot of other people … one of whom was a sibling of Walter Rodney. And he eventually introduced me to Walter. He also introduced me to Jessica and Eric Huntley and that’s how I kind have started being aware of things and being politicised. Jessica Huntley and I became really good friends and I’d help out at the Bogle-L’Ouverture bookshop in Ealing on free evenings and weekends.
When exactly did you meet Walter Rodney, what did you like about him as and his work?
The first time I met Walter Rodney was in a house in the early 1970s. He didn’t live in London anymore – he lived in Tanzania. But he always travelled a lot and was always travelling back and forth. His relative would tell me when he’s coming to London and we would go and see him. We turned up to the house at which the Rodney’s were staying, that’s how I met Walter, his wife Patricia and their young kids.
He just seemed a regular nice guy actually, both him and his wife, they just seem like regular nice people, and they were Guyanese. I knew that he had written a couple of books. But I had no real idea of the importance until I started getting reactions from other Guyanese, when I mentioned that I met Walter Rodney, they would say, “you mean, you met Walter Rodney!?” I realised then that he did history. He was a historian. I’d heard people say Walter was bright. But in my colonised mind, if you were bright you’d become a doctor or a lawyer. Only somebody who wasn’t bright enough would do something like history. And I really did not have a concept of how you made a career of being a historian apart from being a teacher, and you became a teacher if you couldn’t do better. So, him being special and bright was not at the forefront of my mind. He just seemed to be a regular nice guy.
I think one of Rodney’s greatest strength was that he could understand and talk to people at every level with clarity, but without condescension or without using complicated language. By every level, I mean, from people who had no formal education – people who literally could not read and write – to people who were very sophisticated academics and professors and who considered themselves the intellectual elite. He could relate to everyone in a clear and respectful way without patronising them. That is why even as a student in Jamaica, he had attracted the attention of the security services. But because of his clarity and an ideological and political stance at the time, elements within the university at the time, did their damnedest to make sure that he didn’t stay there. I guess they would have seen him as a loose cannon as he wanted to go, listen and talk to the Rastafari community.
I’m guessing that from your interest in Guyanese politics you came to support Rodney’s political organisation the WPA from the UK. When did the WPA Support Group start?
The WPA Support Group started in 1979, the same year the WPA became a political party. But before the formation of the WPA Support Group in London, I worked with an organisation called CARIG, Committee Against repression in Guyana, which both Leland De Cambra – another WPA SG UK founding member – and I were part of. That group of mostly African Caribbean activists, with a Guyanese core started agitating against political developments in Guyana.
I was really hungry to learn and to understand what was going on in Guyana. Unlike others there who were politically active before, I had no ideological background. All I knew about ideologies was what the propaganda had got into my head in my early days in Guyana, which was the PPP was communist and they were bad and had to be gotten rid of. And the PNC was the party for me. That was probably the extent of my ideological awareness. Until I began to read things, write and talk to people and meet other activists involved in liberation struggles and other struggles, it was then that I decided with others to form a WPA support group. In short, I think CARIG had ideological issues with the WPA becoming a political party in Guyana. WPA supporters were therefore pushed out of CARIG, although CARIG continued agitating against Guyana’s escalating political repression.
The WPA message that resonated the most with me was the genuine wielding of power in the interest of working people, and in particular about ethnic division not being the way to go. And so I was able to support them and over time come to learn a little bit more about what was happening and to understand why they were opposing the PNC government. When there was talk about WPA needing support groups I said, “Yes, I want to be part of it!”
How many people were involved in the WPA Support Group and who?
Initially, I would say maybe a dozen members, rising to cores at its height. We organised the first meeting at my then home at 80 Sistova Road, Balham. By that time, I had become so convinced by what the WPA was saying that I thought it would make sense to most of my friends, and most of the people I knew. I remember rushing home early from work that first evening; myself, Leland De Cambra, Makini Campbell, Horace Campbell, and a few other people waiting around to start. But then the phone started to ring with apologies and excuses like “sorry I have to work late” or “I can’t come”. That was my first really tough lesson: I thought we were not going to have enough room for people to sit, but that certainly was not a problem at that first meeting. I was disappointed, but it was the start of a steep organising learning curve.
Can you give me a few examples of the various activities that the WPA support group did in the UK?
Okay, um, apart from having planning meetings, we would have public meetings exposing the PNC dictatorship and its neocolonial nature, organise fundraisers, cultural events, dances, film screenings. and connecting with radical groups from around the world. We also maintained close contact with the WPA in Guyana, hosting and organising public platforms for visiting members and supporters like Josh Ramsammy, Clive Thomas, Moses Bhagwan, Eusi Kwiana. Rupert Roopnarine and Andaiye who resided in the UK for two years in the early 80s as an WPA international secretary. We also distributed WPA literature and its newsletter, Dayclean. Meetings in those days was hiring a school, community or church halls, Ritzy Cinema and Abeng Centre Brixton, getting invited by students, trade unions or other radical groups and disseminating information about what was happening in Guyana and showing solidarity with other campaigns. Those were the priorities at the time. Burnham’s PNC government was showing itself up as dictatorial. They had been shamelessly rigging elections, and were duplicitous with Guyana’s working people, doing really progressive and popular things like supporting African liberation struggles while at the same time being a despot at home.
Did the WPA support group organise these meeting with African or Indian community organisations? Or even left-wing and student groupings?
I think it was very much a case of whatever and wherever the support group could do, and with whomever. We collaborated with Caribbean, African, and many other student activists all over London, the Midlands, Sussex; with Labour and Liberal party activists, NGOs like CAFOD, Friends of The Earth, Amnesty International, interested in the erosion of Guyana’s political, civil and human rights. These contacts assisted with disseminating reliable information on Guyana and the WPA, organising legal and election observers and briefing journalists, MPs and other activists.
What we were doing all the time is trying to say to people what’s going on in Guyana and why. That certainly was my focus. We would say, “we formed this group and be happy to come and talk to you about it.” So, some students somewhere would invite us to come and speak at something that was already going on, or we would just organise meetings and do flyers and put them out. I remember events at the old Africa Centre in Covent Garden on King Street. That was like the second most important central venue for African and African Caribbean activists after the Earl’s Court Student Centre. Those were the two venues if you wanted to meet black activists, progressive kinds of people. The Earl’s Court centre was predominantly Caribbean people while the Africa Centre was predominantly Africans.
That leads me to another question because Burnham in Guyana in the late 70s supported this so-called “cooperative socialism” and made a reputation for himself abroad as a progressive leader, especially in various black radical circles across the world. Did that fact make it difficult for the WPA support group to gain respect in the UK among elements of the black community?
It was not so difficult to get respect, because at that time people were very receptive. However, when non-Guyaneserealised we were criticising the Burnham government, they became confused. Guyanese people understood it, because then they knew either directly or from family and friends in Guyana, what was going on. But for other Caribbean and African and progressive people, anywhere, really, one had to do a lot of explaining, to explain how somebody who is seen as progressive in the non-aligned movement was anti-democratic and rotten at the core. In the 1980s, I remember going to the Houses of Parliament here in London with a WPA leader, Clive Thomas, to meet MP Bernie Grant. Clive Thomas was attempting to garner support for the WPA and Bernie grant at first was supportive, but then said, “…the thing is, man, I can’t criticise Burnham as a black leader.” That was the biggest struggle that one would have with black activists in the UK, trying to explain to them “Yes, Burnham is a black leader, but….” Rodney’s explanations helped me understand those contradictions and the WPA in Guyana had a well thought out position to counter the PNC’s carefully cultivated progressive, radical pan-African image.
The primary focus of the PNC, in all their rebrands [now APNU], has always been about usurping state power to develop a base to enrich themselves and dispense patronage, mainly to an African-Guyanese elite. Classic manifestations were the nationalisation of Guyana’s sugar and bauxite industries; their notorious, well documented election rigging during the 1960s to 1990s to keep out the PPP [then deemed communist by the Americans] with CIA collusion [documentation now released], and their astonishingly foolhardy attempt – in full public glare – to steal the March 2020 election which they lost, citing historical economic deprivation of African Guyanese. Their reckless desperation to retain control of Guyana’s nascent oil and gas industry, precipitated today’s sad pictures of PNC old men [mostly ex-military in sharp suits] embarrassing themselves.
Did a lot of members in the WPA Support Group write and publish any pamphlets or maybe news briefs on the situation in Guyana?
We did a lot of that but virtually all of them came from Guyana, because we were gathering Information, and accurate and reliable information was always an issue. We would get by various means information from Guyana, it could be sent to us by post, or it could be people travelling and bringing stuff and we would reproduce them here and there. There were quite a lot of documents that we would reproduce; Dayclean, which was the WPA’s regular publication, and other particular speeches and publications like Sign of the Times, People’s Power, No Dictator,  and other pamphlets and booklets. It was the sort of material that they would have circulated in Guyana because reading material was always at a premium and newsprint was banned. Part of the repressive nature of the Burnham regime meant that you were starved of newsprint. So, reading material was always in premium demand.
One of the things if you were Guyanese and you were travelling is that you tried to tell as few people as possible that you were going back, because otherwise everyone would ask you to take a letter, and the letter would turn out to be a big carrier bag full of something. That has to do with the fact that there was always a lot of shortages in Guyana, of basic foodstuffs, also other basic things so that somebody was always desperate, almost anything that you take for granted now would have been either scarce or unavailable in Guyana.
In one sense it was easier to get WPA pamphlets reproduced in the UK. We just had to go to a printer’s and get it paid for, or some of us will use facilities where we worked. I worked at one time at a place where I was allowed to use a Gestetner machine (an old duplicating machine). Where I could print a flyer and type it up on a stencil, and then run it off on the Gestetner machine. I think that was the only way we duplicated pamphlets because photocopying was far too expensive. And the WPA Support Group never paid for the Gestetner because we received collections from meetings and fundraised for everything we did. Or we’d ask people to do it at work or try to get reduced prices somewhere. It was our hustle.
This is the first of a two-part interview, the second part will be posted in a couple of weeks.
Anne Braithwaite is the co-chair and treasurer of the Walter Rodney Programme under the auspices of the Pluto Educational Trust (PET) in London.
The Walter Rodney Foundation is hosting: ‘ASSASSINATION is no ACCIDENT’ to call for justice for Walter Rodney which is 41 years overdue. Hear from the Rodney Family (including Donald Rodney), Horace Campbell, Dev Springer and others. 13 June, 6 – 9pm (UK). Resister here.
 Anne is referring to one the racial conflicts that occurred during the People Progressive Party’s (PPP) term in office from 1961-1964. In February 1962, strikes and riots erupted against the PPP governments’ Budget bill. As the protest spread, they often took the form of violent clashes between members of the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese communities.
 The People Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) was the party that led the anti-colonial movement in the 1950s. It was founded and led by the Marxist Indo-Guyanese dentist, Cheddi Jagan, and the African Guyanese Lawyer, Forbes Burnham. However, the two leaders split in 1957. Forbes Burnham created the People National Congress (PNC), which relied on support from the African community, while Jagan’s PPP relied on support from the Indian community. Burnham’s PNC defeated the PPP in the General Elections of 1964, rising to power before Guyanese independence from Britain in 1966.
 Anne here is referring to when Walter Rodney went to teach in Jamaica in 1968. The Jamaican Government banned Rodney from the island because of his Black Power agitation among students, Rastafarians and unemployed youths.
 Anne is naming some of the speeches Walter Rodney made in Guyana in 1979-1980.