On December 2nd the official announcement that Bermuda was going to be home to the 35th America’s Cup (AC35) was made, although the marriage had long before been consummated. And after reading and listening to some of the platitudes tossed out, “If there was ever a time for national pride it is now,” it is clear that with the event coming to Bermuda, it is adding to an already strong racial undertow.
AC35’S announcement, and the subsequent comments, reminded me of another sporting event that was of major national importance replete with racial overtones – the 1995 World Rugby Cup in South Africa. Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after serving 27 years for crimes committed under apartheid laws. Just four years later he became South Africa’s first Black President. The poem Invictus was used by Mandela for strength during his years of incarceration.
While attending a match between the Springboks (South Africa’s Rugby team) and England, he noticed that Blacks at the game used to cheer for England – or any team that was playing against the Springboks. In fact, he used to do the same thing while in prison, as the Springboks to Blacks represented White privilege, White supremacy and the apartheid system all rolled up in one ugly package. While the change to majority rule was spared major bloodshed, Mandela knew that racial tensions remained high and that fighting could break out at any time, ruining the fledgling nation’s journey to a thriving democracy.
So Mandela comes up with what seems to be a crazy idea – unite behind the Springboks in the World Cup. Mandela saw this as a way to bring about ‘national pride.’ As outlandish as the idea sounded, he was able to persuade his Sports Committee, predominantly Black, and the captain of the Springboks, a predominantly White team, to go along with the idea. That, in and of itself, was somewhat of a coup. Getting the country behind him was the major challenge. In the movie Invictus, which told the story of the events leading up to the World Rugby Cup, Mandela, who was played Morgan Freeman, said something to the effect that “you cannot unite a country by taking away the one thing one sector loves.” And this was the same Mandela that was shrewd enough to learn the enemy’s language while incarcerated, which probably went a long way in securing his peaceful release. This part of the story ends happily. The Springboks win a highly contested match in overtime 1512, and Mandela watches a nation erupt into celebration.
The symbolism may not be all there for the Bermuda version but some of it is. Blacks in South Africa had suffered for 50 years under apartheid, Blacks in Bermuda 400 years under White-minority rule. When the majority-Black Progressive Labour Party came into power in 1998, there was an air of optimism since, finally, White-minority rule had been broken and a new era, of if not racial equality and equity, then at least substantive moves toward same, was to be ushered in. That was largely unrealised. And after a boom period which lasted until 2008, when the worldwide recession hit, debt started to mount, jobs were lost and Bermuda’s Teflon economy joined the real world.
In the 2012 general election, the newly-formed One Bermuda Alliance (OBA), with promises of decreased debt, 2,000 jobs, no job losses for civil servants (“you have our word” assured one ad) and a better-managed economy, among other things, was rewarded with, against all odds, the prize of government by the slimmest of margins – 19 to 17 seats.
In the nearly two years since the OBA won the government, none if its major promises have come to fruition. The national debt has increased, nearly 2,000 jobs have been lost, and civil servants have joined other workers in marches against privatization and a lack of jobs in general, even as many blue-collar guest workers have remained employed throughout the recession. And economic indicators, far from sprouting, have actually been spluttering. There was nothing to show to the voters – until now. Sailing in at 35 knots is the ‘Great White Hope,’ AC35.
The event itself promises to be spectacular, perhaps even so for the non-sailor. It also has the potential of ushering in a new era of tourism. With Bermuda being showcased to the world on a sustained basis to high-end viewers, air arrivals can only go up. While the island’s bed supply is low, memorandums of understandings and government guarantees have suddenly come out of the woodwork in support of new hotel development and infrastructure. If this event is handled correctly, the average Bermudian could also be among the beneficiaries, but that remains to be seen.
But can AC35 be used as a unifying event in the same way that the World Rugby Cup in 1995 was for South Africa? If it can, there have already been a number of faux pas committed. Firstly, the ‘Team Bermuda’ was all White and, with the exception of a lone woman, all male. Then there was the imagery at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club when the announcement was made. All Whites looking at the screen with the lone Black barman ‘serving Mr. and Mrs. Daisy,’ a scene reminiscent of another Freeman movie. Once a Club that denied Blacks membership, all who want to join can now, theoretically, do so. However the total cost of membership is likely to keep it segregated for some time to come.
And then there was the arrival of America’s Cup itself. Of all the aspects of our rich culture that could have greeted its arrival, we have a Scottish Bagpiper. The more prominent African Gombeys were later used at the street party, perhaps as an afterthought.
Now back to the underlying premise. Can AC35 be the nation-building event in Bermuda as the World Rugby Cup was in South Africa? (At least it was at the time. My recent visit fact-finding mission there has led me to believe that many racial issues remain unresolved.) The simple answer to that question is while it could be it won’t be. And the reason why it won’t be is equally simple – we don’t have a Mandela-like leader to pull it off. In a Harvard video Leadership Series, Mandela’s style of leadership was described as typically African, come-from-behind, consensus-building. And while the ruling OBA have displayed a level of political savvy, considering how they won the 2012 General Election, and the plot that resulted in the current leader’s rise to the top post, consensus-building has not been the hallmark of their two-year reign. Neither is the confrontational style of the Westminster system of government. And which Black leader can Premier Michael Dunkley engage to pull off a Mandela-like coup? And which one would accept the challenge?
And there is another reason that AC35 won’t reach its full potential as a nation-builder. The ruling party has a trust deficit with the voters, two-thirds of whom are Black. In our (Profiles of Bermuda) poll conducted in the summer, when asked which party was in touch with the concerns of most Bermudians, the opposition PLP distanced the OBA by a margin of nearly two-to-one (48% to 25%). Among Black voters, the PLP scored even higher (69% versus 9%). Like the annual monetary deficits, there is much ground to make up for in the trust department. Nothing has happened to change those figures positively for the OBA since that poll was taken. That is until now. But can AC35 rebuild that trust? Given the number of broken promises, such as abandoning the referendum on gambling, having promised it to the voters in the lead-up to the General Election, I think not.
When the dust finally settles on the June, 2017 event, there is no doubt in my mind that Bermuda will have staged a successful AC35. But this highly fortuitous event has to be looked at for its main purpose to the government, outweighing its much loftier, nation-building goal – the next General Election, due no later than February 2018, by my calculations. Expect the next election to take place sometime after June 2017.
AC35 can be ‘so much more’ than just successful but its overriding purpose for Bermuda will ensure that it won’t be.
By Cordell W. Riley
Cordell W. Riley is the immediate-past president of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB). The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.