mandela rugby thumb medium300 214With the 2014 World Cup set to take place in Brazil, African Diaspora Tourism pays tribute to South African's late iconic hero and former president Nelson Mandela by pausing to remember how he who used this very sport to pull a country together during the Rugby World Cup in 1995 in South Africa:

During that time, South African blacks saw rugby as a symbol of apartheid and the Springboks as a metaphor for apartheid’s roofless brutality. Still Mandela encouraged them to get behind the team that they hated and support the Springboks during the home turf 1995 tournament. The Springboks won over New Zealand, the best team in the world at that time, and Mandela triumphantly presented the trophy to Springboks’ white captain Francois Pienaar. Mandela’s presentation is remembered as one of the greatest moments in South Africa's history.

Their win was not only a triumph for the game, but a triumph over apartheid, and a symbol of a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South African. Mandela waved to the crowd, handed the trophy to Pienaar and said, “Francois, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for this country.” Pienaar only replied, “Mr President, I want to thank you for what you’ve done.”  

To understand why this moment became so popular, you must understand the tension that was prevalent in South Africa at the time. In his book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, author John Carlin explained that the game came at a dangerously volatile time in South Africa's history. “Far right terrorism against the new democratic order remained a frightening possibility, with tens of thousands of heavily armed, army-trained white men seething at the black majority's seizure of power. .. Mandela's overwhelming priority as president was to stop a bloodbath and to lay the foundations of a new democratic order in which all South Africans, irrespective of politics or race, would feel they belonged.

Carlin said that Mandela’s job was to try to become the father of the whole nation: to make everybody feel that he symbolized their identity and values. “He set himself the task of persuading the country to come together around the national rugby team.” Mandela himself had never been, until 1995, a great fan of rugby, but he loved other sports. Mandela may not have understood rugby very well, but he understood the political impact sports could have. Mandela convinced his black compatriots to make the Springbok team their own, even though there was only one nonwhite player on the 15-man roster. He then enlisted the white stars of the team to his cause by persuading them to learn the new national anthem (previously a song of black protest) and to reach out to what initially was a skeptical black population.

mandela and teamCarlin describes the day of the 1995 Rugby World Cup between South Africa and New Zealand: The day's crowning moment came before the game had even begun, when Mandela went out onto the field, before a crowd of 65,000 that was 95% white, wearing the green Springbok jersey, the old symbol of oppression, beloved of his apartheid jailers. There was a moment of jaw-dropping disbelief, a sharp collective intake of breath, and suddenly the crowd broke into a chant, which grew steadily louder, of "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"

An hour and a half later, after a nerve-racking final seven minutes, the Springboks won the game. And then, when Mandela walked onto the field to present the trophy to South Africa's captain, it was "Nelson! Nelson!" again, but even louder, and with tears now. The whole country, black and white, sang and danced into the night, united for the first time in its history around one cause, one delirious celebration. There was no civil war, no right wing terrorism, and Mandela achieved his life's goal of creating what remains still today, and would have seemed almost impossible then: a stable, multiracial democracy.

Even though rugby was only part of Mandela’s strategy, his rugby diplomacy during those early years of freedom became the key to it all. The Springboks beat France, Australia and others to reach the final against New Zealand, then the best team in the world.  “That victory had special significance for a country scarred by 40 years of apartheid, but which, under the slogan ‘one team, one nation,’ had begun the long journey of healing through a sport long considered a white man’s game,” writes Carlin.

The sporting world along with the rest of the world will never forget the role played by Mandela and Pienaar in uniting the country in 1995. This defining moment, which was made into the movie Invictus in 1999, will continue to burn brightly in the hearts of the rugby team members and people of South Africa.

Photos: Nelson Mandela Foundation