From apartheid to the Cup

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South Africa fields the first America’s Cup syndicate from the African continent

South Africa fields the first America’s Cup syndicate from the African continent

The logo at the Team Shosholoza base in Valencia reads “One Team, One Nation, One Dream,” an ideal graven on the South African America’s Cup syndicate last summer when Andrew Mlangeni came to cheer them on.

Imprisoned for 26 years with Nelson Mandela on infamous RobbenIsland, Mlangeni helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa. Today he is a member of South Africa’s parliament and an enthusiastic booster of the first America’s Cup syndicate fielded from Africa.

“This team represents the world I always believed in,” said the 82-year-old Mlangeni, in a visit with his country’s sailors in Trapani, Sicily, in the fall of 2005. “They are showing the world that South Africa has turned into a new country and a new democracy we can all be proud of.”

Mlangeni was charged with treason under the notorious Sabotage and Suppression of Communism Act, along with fellow anti-apartheid activists Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other prominent members of the African National Congress. He was sentenced to life in prison in June 1964 in what has become known as the Rivonia Trial.

Asked if while imprisoned on RobbenIsland he ever could have imagined having the opportunity to attend an America’s Cup, he said, “No, it never crossed my mind. At the time we were sacrificing our lives for the freedom of the next generation. We weren’t thinking of ourselves.”

He says, however, that he is grateful he can enjoy all that life has for him today. He says he was sent to cheer on the Cup team to impart to them the same magic Mandela gave to the African rugby team that won the world championships in 1995.

When he returned to Europe in June 2006 to support the team in Valencia for Act 12 of the Louis Vuitton challenger series, Mlangeni had even more to be proud of than in Sicily. By the end of Act 12, Team Shosholoza was eighth overall among 12 boats in the challenger series, despite financial constraints and a young program. The syndicate was winning races and climbing a steep learning curve with the expert help of Italian helmsmen Paulo Cian and Tomasso Chieffi, U.S. tactician Dee Smith, Australian trimmer Brett Jones, and British sailing manager Paul Standbridge.

Durban-based Capt. Salvatore Sarno is the driving force behind Team Shosholoza. He is a founder of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second-largest container shipper and the first South African shipper to give blacks shares in the company and seats on its board of directors. Sarno believed from the start that the team could reflect South African society. “It’s a mixed team, and that’s what makes South Africa a rainbow nation,” says team spokeswoman Janine Geigele.

Six of its 25 sailors are black. Three of them — Golden Mgedeza, Marcello Burricks and Solomon Dipeere — came out of the Izivunguvungu MSC Foundation for Youth sailing school. Founded by South African Olympian and Team Shosholoza helmsman Ian Ainslee, the foundation — its name means “strong wind” — takes in children ages 8 to 18 from Cape Town’s poor townships, and through sailing, social work and schooling prepares them for the new society South Africa is building. “We build up the youngsters’ self-confidence and their capacity to look after themselves in the future,” Ainslee says.

Team Shosholoza gives these young men from the townships the opportunity to compete against the world’s best sailors in one of the world’s most prestigious sailing events — an unforgettable and formative experience that they can be proud of, says Mlangeni.

Shosholoza, a word with roots deep in South African culture, is a work song that mine workers and others engaged in hard, physical labor often sang. It means “go forward” or “make way.” The song was popular with South African fans at the 1995 Rugby World Cup; now it is the mantra of its Cup syndicate.

Starting with a boat two generations old, the team went more than a year without a win in the challenger racing. But after launching its new South African-built RSA 83, co-designed by British naval architect Jason Ker and South African engineers and designers, the team advanced in the standings. It won its first race in Malmo-Skane, Sweden, in 2005, followed by three more match victories in Trapani and a strong fifth-place finish in the fleet races. In summer 2006’s Act 12, Team Shosholoza won one match race and lost two against fifth-place Spanish Desafío Español, then won the first of three matches against the Swedes, followed by two losses to give it eighth overall.

“You are a young team, small and under-resourced, unlike most of the other teams competing here,” Mlangeni reassured his countrymen in Valencia. “But I am so proud of how far you have come.”

In this spring’s Act 13, the team moved up to seventh in the Louis Vuitton rankings, often staying with the leaders early on in the races and finishing as high as second.

Mlangeni has been a member of South Africa’s parliamentary sports and recreation portfolio committee since 1994. A keen sportsman himself, he played 18 holes of golf, watched the sailing on a big screen in the America’s Cup park, and stayed up “very late” watching World Cup soccer on television while in Valencia. Mlangeni offered the team words of encouragement before each race and promised that when he returned home he would seek more South African sponsors to support the campaign.

Managing director Sarno sees the Cup effort as a showcase for the new South Africa’s technology, human initiative, skills and expertise. “Only the most technologically advanced countries in the world can mount a challenge for the Cup, and this gives us the chance to present South Africa as a modern, dynamic, exciting country with the skills and technological expertise equal to the best in the world,” he says.