We must all pass on the baton
Freedom Day is April 27 in South Africa, marking the republic’s first democratic General Election in 1994. That milestone came after decades of struggle both at home and abroad; success coming at great cost, with extensive imprisonment and numerous lives lost.
That movement, led by the likes of Nelson Mandela, took up the batons from their forward-looking ancestors. They used an approach summed up as “Think Globally, Act Locally”, which leveraged networks that knew no boundaries, to transform their country.
This year marks Bermuda’s 50th anniversary of democratic general elections, the first occurring on May 22, 1968. Our breakthrough also came after a long struggle, albeit more peaceful than that in South Africa. Its success was also owed to networking, including a “relay” of progress. This involved Gladys Morrell leading the Woman’s Suffrage Movement in the three decades up to 1946, with the “baton” taken up by E.F. Gordon, who led the Bermuda Workers Association’s petition campaign in 1947 that included the universal right to vote as a key issue.
On that foundation, the Progressive Group took up the “baton”, initiating the peaceful success of the Theatre Boycott a decade later in 1959, removing formal barriers. During the spring of 1960, at the home of Roslyn Williams — the same site where the boycott was secretly planned — the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage was formed. The CUAS included members of the Progressive Group as well as others, including Pauulu Kamarakafego, the former Roosevelt Brown. It was his idea to keep the “baton” moving forward by hosting a series of debate-style, public meetings on the right to vote.
That campaign concluded with an audience of about 800 at No 1 Shed on Front Street, then known as Hamilton Hall.
That energy led to the formation of the Progressive Labour Party by a number of people, some of whom had been carrying the “baton” since the Dr Gordon era and others from the Progressive Group and CUAS. It was the PLP that championed that last “leg” of the relay towards the goal of democracy by 1968 for the island.
Entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte provides insight into how much Mandela appreciated the impact of networking among those who take on the “baton” because they “think globally and act locally”. Recounting his role as organiser for Mandela’s first United States tour in June 1990, the singer tells how, upon landing in Detroit, the former prisoner was greeted by a welcoming group in a queue based on official ranking — political leaders, state officials, etc.
When Mandela spotted Rosa Parks near the end of the line, he quickly walked down to embrace her first. Joyful appreciation had trumped protocol.
On June 26, 1987, South Africa’s “Freedom Charter” Day, the Bermuda Anti-Apartheid Group organised a lunchtime event on the steps of the City Hall in support of the South African Voting Rights Campaign at a critical stage. In the spirit of “Think Globally, Act Locally”, we took the opportunity to provide Pauulu with his first local honour in appreciation of his role in the movement for democracy in Bermuda. We presented him with a formal Certificate of Appreciation, and in addition, created a card measuring 4ft by 5ft for attendees to sign their personal thanks.
Some years later, visiting Pauulu’s home, I noticed that he still had that informal card displayed in his living room. He linked that expression of appreciation with his legacy by including samples of those signatures on the inner cover of his autobiography when he published it in 2002. He has subsequently been made one of Bermuda’s national heroes.
It is clear that social progress in any society is achieved through networks involving people who “think” and “act” in particular ways. As we reflect on the historic contributions of those from our shared past, we are all called to take on those “batons” to move forward today towards a better Bermuda and a better World.
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