James Burty David
The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones.
— William Shakespeare, ‘Julius Caesar’
Not always. This is the statement which Shakespeare makes the crafty Mark Anthony say in his funeral oration upon the death of his friend Julius Caesar. In our case, the sad demise last Sunday of James Burty David (JBD), the former Minister for Regional Administration, belied the wisdom of Shakespeare. They were all praise for him, friends and foes. At least, this is what we witnessed from all quarters during the period of the official mourning. It goes to his credit that it was so although it would have been best if those words of appreciation had been stated when he was around.
Some stated that his indefectible loyalty to the Labour Party from start to finish was remarkable. This is true but it conceals an underlying expectation that he could have defaulted on his party just like so many footloose others have been doing over the years. Others were sorry at his sudden unexpected departure from this life, given that he had been doing a lot for the poor in his constituency. This is what exactly MPs are expected to be doing; that James Burty David was picked up for being engaged to raise the welfare of his constituents may effectively be pointing out the apathy several other MPs have shown towards their constituencies. Others stated that JBD believed in principles and did not disown his party even when its popularity hit rock-bottom. This statement assumes that MPs are normally expected to desert their parties when those parties are sinking. As for his being a repository of knowledge of the history of the Labour Party, it goes to his personal credit that JBD was one of the few who cared to cast themselves in their political role always recalling the values for which the party they belong to has stood for. For several others, these values are supposed to be malleable or opportunistic. He was also praised for his literary erudition and for upholding family values.
JBD joined politics around the mid-1960s. This was a time when communalism was rife in Mauritius. Young men and women of Christian faith, barring a few, were expected to join the bandwagon of the PMSD in the anti-independence struggle of the time. Contrary to such expectations, JBD found his berth in the Labour Party which was at that time the arch rival of the PMSD. He regularly found himself during his formative years in the company, amongst others, of the Founder-Editor-in-Chief of Mauritius Times, Beekrumsingh Ramlallah and of Sir Kher Jagatsingh, who both were members of the Labour Party at that time. It was Prakash Ramlallah who first introduced him to MT where he collaborated for many years before joining the team of The Nation.
It was difficult for a person in JBD’s position to choose Labour in those days; that he did so proves that he was not prepared to take advantage of the communal stance then adopted by the PMSD. Like Sir Harold Walter, who was, like him, a Seventh-Day Adventist, JBD might have been assured of a brighter political future by sticking to Labour rather than going to the Catholic-dominant PMSD but the deeper reason for this choice must have been his unwillingness to dabble in communalism and his conviction that Labour stood for a cause which was closer to his heart. He had no inclination to get entangled into the communal politics which was rampant at the time. That he remained stuck to Labour when the party of the minorities, the MMM, together with a swathe of former Labour supporters, swept through the polls in 1982, shows his conviction against non-opportunistic and non-communal politics. Not many politicians of the current period have earned such credentials. Many if not most have prevailed on their belongings to groups and even sub-groups of the population in a bid to remain close to power.
Let us abstract from his role as a party man. As Minister for Regional Administration, it goes without saying that JBD must have invested a lot of efforts to deal with the growing problem of street hawkers, especially in Port Louis. He must have secured the necessary internal support for Mahen Gondeea, last year’s Lord Mayor of the City of Port Louis, to put some order into the mess that the streets of Port Louis had become with the presence of so-called street hawkers along the most highly frequented street pavements. It would appear that the succeeding Lord Mayor overturned this decision immediately upon his appointment, so that the hawkers have invited themselves to the street pavements again. The semblance of orderliness that had been established in the Desforges Street of Port Louis, thanks to the earlier perseverance of JBD and Mahen Gondeea, was at once shattered. Such is the frivolity of political posturing that vested interests manage to undo whatever good work has been accomplished. Such setbacks affect the ministers who fight for a just cause and take their mission seriously, which was no doubt the case of JBD. One assumes however that, having been in the political arena for more than 40 years, JBD must have developed a sufficiently thick skin against such oddities which confront head-on no less an initiative than the start of a process to restore the City of Port Louis to its pristine dignity and quaintness.
Given the constraints under which he had to operate, his has been a successful career whether as a journalist, a party secretary or as a politician and Minister. He worked with the top politicians who have charted the destiny of Mauritius. He never betrayed their trust and lived up to his own concept of a righteous life. His modesty and common touch were not part of a feigned art of deception which is so common in politics; it came from his simplicity and deep faith in the Divine.
We pray that his soul finds the peace it deserves and extend to his family our sincere condolences upon his untimely demise.