Nelson Mandela’s influence transcended politics and touched countless walks of life. His involvement in South Africa both hosting and eventually winning the Rugby World Cup is something that has already entered sporting folklore, as Liz Tyler explains.
In May 1994, just four years after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela stands as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
A country still divided, fighting between its black and white citizens as rife as ever, as armies of white soldiers struggle to keep white rule.
“It was the worst possible tension you can get between black and white people”, Arrie Rossouw, a South African journalist was quoted as saying.
As the violence intensified, Mandela began a campaign to bring the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa. He was determined to use the world’s stage to unite his nation. But with this campaign he took a great risk: rugby, and South Africa’s national team the Springboks, had long been associated with the worst of the country’s history.
Black people hated rugby, those who played rugby and especially the Springboks, because it symbolised the oppression black people had experienced under apartheid rule. Though Mandela rallied for their support, the black people wouldn’t support the Springboks – not even for Madiba.
Mandela persisted and took his One Team, One Country campaign across the country repeating his message in villages and towns as he went.
The Springbok team were so moved by his support that they went to visit the Robin Island prison where Mandela had been jailed for nearly three decades. Finally, Mandela got what he had worked so hard on – the Rugby World Cup in his home nation.
And so the tournament began. The underdog Springbok side flew through the tournament in a magical whirlwind, beating defending champions Australia and then France in the semi-final. The extraordinary events in the rugby were mirrored outside the team, as with every round the Springbok’s progressed through, the more black South Africans began to stand behind their national team.
The Springboks had made it through to the final with New Zealand. As the morning of the match dawned, South Africa awoke to a frenzy of excitement shared by all. Black and white people came together to support their team as one.
The pre-match silence in the South African dressing room was only broken by the entering of the country’s president wearing a Springbok shirt.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever expect him to wear a Springbok on his heart.” said Francois Pienaar, the 1995 Springbok captain.
The game, that still stands as one of the best in rugby’s illustrious history, was tied 12-12 with 80 minutes on the clock. As the game ran into extra time to decide a winner, South Africa pushed forward. As Joel Stransky’s boot came into contact with the ball in a drop goal attempt, millions of people held their breath. The ball flew through the posts to give South Africa the game and more importantly, the trophy.
As the preparations for the presentations were going on, Nelson Mandela took to the pitch wearing the symbol of his former enemies – a Springbok shirt. Ellis Park erupted; the people chanted “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson” in one voice. When Mandela handed Pienaar the trophy South Africa rejoiced as one.
“We didn’t have 65,000 South Africans; we had 43 million South Africans,” Francois Pienaar exclaimed in his post-match interview.
Nelson Mandela’s incredible goal had been achieved. South Africa began to celebrate as one, blacks and whites alike. A sport which once symbolised the oppression of its people had bought this tumultuous country together and signalled a beginning of a new future.