After two days of racing and two wins, SSL Team South Africa is leading Group 7 at the SSL Gold Cup QS Round 5. The team named ‘Ubuntu’ led by Ian Ainslie has ambitions on and off water beyond sport and sailing.
The South African Team’s nickname is Ubuntu. Captain Ian Ainslie explains this is an African concept which translates as: “I am only because of who we all are. The concept is about the interconnectedness of all beings. It is about being humane and always ensuring human dignity is at the core of your actions and thoughts.”
Can the SSL Gold Cup change lives? It might seem a bit of a stretch, but Ian Ainslie is one of life’s great optimists. He is also someone who cannot say no to a challenge. A three-time Olympian in the Finn singlehander (Barcelona ’92, Atlanta ’96 and Sydney 2000) and at the helm for America’s Cup Team Shosholoza, the 56-year-old South African reluctantly answered the call to head up his nation’s entry in to the inaugural SSL Gold Cup.
Why reluctant? “I’m living in Hungary these days with my family, I’d sort of moved on with my life and I felt it was an opportunity for someone younger than me to take this on. But the Sailing Athletes Foundation convinced me to come to Switzerland and take a look at what was going on.”
So impressed was Ainslie by the scale and ambition of the project that he felt compelled to get involved. Swiftly recruiting his friend and fellow South African Anthony Spillebeen to put the project together, Ainslie saw the opportunity to assemble a multiracial team to represent his country. “How could you do anything else? When just 6% of the population are white, how could you have a whites-only crew taking part in a major event like this? I’m not actually that nationalistic, I don’t really go in for that whole thing of saying how great my country is, but when I saw Nelson Mandela lift the trophy after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, that brought a tear to my eye. The same when Siya Kolisi raised the trophy at the last Rugby World Cup three years ago. We can only be proud of a national team when it is truly representative of that nation.”
Ainslie was an integral part of putting together South Africa’s ground-breaking America’s Cup campaign for Valencia 2007. For any neutrals, and even for Cup fans who had their own team to cheer for, the exuberance, the almost child-like enthusiasm of the Shosholoza team was a breath of fresh air through the grand prix racing scene where teams and professional sailors can take themselves oh-so-seriously.
Black sailors are still a rarity in the sailing world, and this is something that Ainslie has been keen to rectify for the past 30 years. Among South Africa’s SSL Gold Cup crew are some young black athletes who are already proving their mettle at the highest level. Joweal Klaase has been signed up to sail with Phoenix on the TP52 circuit. Asenathi Jim has represented South Africa twice at the Olympics, steering a 470 doublehanded dinghy.
Ainslie goes way back with Jim, more than 20 years. “I first met Asenathi when he was just eight years old, and he was super keen from the moment I met him. Now he’s 30 and he’s already achieved so much for anyone of his age, but particularly from his background.”
In part 2, we’ll find out more about the extraordinary beginnings of this South African team. It all started at a set of traffic lights on a busy street in a suburb of Cape Town…