Poignant memories of fighting apartheid
A milestone for the Island’s anti-apartheid campaign was recalled this week as Bermuda prepares to mark Nelson Mandela Day this Saturday.
Three members of Bermuda’s disabled community braved a torrential storm in their wheelchairs to raise thousands for the cause against racist South Africa, at a time when the campaign appeared to be flagging.
Undaunted by the downpour, Willard “Foxy” Fox, Claire-Ann Moore and the late Clyde Stovell amazed supporters in November, 1982 when they went ahead with a “wheel-a-thon” from Prospect to St George’s. Glenn Fubler of the group Imagine Bermuda, which is promoting Mandela’s birthday as an opportunity for positive action, said he had been “tempted to give in to disillusionment” until their inspiring example.
“At that time in Bermuda, the awareness of the anti-apartheid campaign was limited,” Mr Fubler said. “In fact, when we held a gospel concert at Ruth Seaton James Auditorium, in October 1982, to raise money for the South Africa Fund, less than 50 residents attended.
“I recall being disappointed with that outcome.”
The cause was also dear to the late Margaret Carter, founder of the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association, who sat on the board for the South Africa Fund. Mr Fox said Ms Carter, who campaigned for the rights of the disabled, impressed him with her zeal against apartheid.
“She introduced me to the group being formed by Glenn and others,” said Mr Fox, a Summerhaven resident who has been in a wheelchair all his life. “I joined her, one time — it was a very active group. People had finances here for businesses in South Africa. Quite a bit of campaigning went on to make sure Bermudians didn’t deal with South Africa, and telling people about South Africa’s racial inequality.”
Nelson Mandela, then a jailed freedom fighter, would not be liberated for eight more years. He went on to become president of post-apartheid South Africa.
“If there is such a thing as an angel, Mandela was one,” Mr Fox said. “The philosophy is that no matter what happens to you, you learn to forgive. You don’t forget, but you forgive.”
The journey around the Island raised awareness as well as funds, but the trio also wanted to demonstrate the capabilities of electric wheelchairs, still relatively new to the Island, which could go up to 13 miles on a single charge.
“My philosophy was, rain or shine, I’m going to leave on time — never dreaming that the weather was going to be like a mini tropical storm,” Mr Fox said of that Sunday, November 8. Using his hands “like a windshield wiper” as he drove, Mr Fox said he passed incredulous friends and had close calls with careless motorists.
“My friends yelled, ‘Foxy, you’re a fool riding around in this weather’,” he said. One car doused him as it swept by, he added: “I went on two wheels — I thought I was going to turn over.”
Torrents of water were coming down Crawl Hill and fierce winds on the Causeway also made for an arduous crossing. Ultimately Mr Stovell’s wheelchair broke down early in the journey, while Ms Moore made it as far as Flatts, but Mr Fox was able to get to St George’s. Mr Fubler, who was at home sick, had assumed the event was called off but got a pleasant shock from The Royal Gazette coverage the next day.
“The example of these three sparked a shift in consciousness for me,” he said. “Here it was, three people who had plenty on their plate, leading the way for those of us who were able-bodied. It reinvigorated my commitment to the campaign and would have pricked the conscience of many residents.”
Mr Fox recalls raising about $2,000. Ultimately the fund pulled together $30,000, which was matched by the Bermuda Government.
“That wheel-a-thon proved to be a watershed — pardon the pun — for the local anti-apartheid effort,” Mr Fubler said. “Those three walked the walk. Like Mandela, they did not let circumstances prevent them from starting; they didn’t let the torrential rain turn them around. Only mechanical failure got in their way. On Saturday we can all act in their spirit and follow their example.”
Imagine Bermuda has linked with the African Diaspora Heritage Trail Bermuda Foundation to call for locals to give 67 minutes to helping others this Saturday, in recognition of Mandela’s 67-year battle. For Mr Fox, the fight against apartheid paralleled the battle against racism at home. He said Bermuda remains haunted by “a milder form” of apartheid, reflected in its political divide along racial lines.
“I want to thank Glenn for keeping the celebration of Mandela’s birthday alive,” Mr Fox added. “I followed Mandela’s career the whole time after he got out of prison. I watched his funeral, the whole 15 days of his memorial — I felt like I was present.
“Bermuda has local heroes too, that need to be recognised, so let us take a lesson in respecting Nelson Mandela and the life he led, and transfer some of these efforts to our local heroes.”