Nelson Mandela and Springboks: How a Rugby Match Helped Heal a Nation

Mike Melli , 06 Dec 2013
President Nelson Mandela and Team Captain Francois Pienaar
President Nelson Mandela and Team Captain Francois Pienaar

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” These were the words of South Africa’s beloved leader Nelson Mandela in 2000, five years after a historic South Africa World Cup victory in 1995. To Mandela, it was much more than a championship match, it was an opportunity to begin the reconciliation between the influential, previous ruling white minority, and the black majority which elevated Mandela to the presidency one year earlier.

Faced with a horribly divided nation, President Mandela was looking for any opportunity to heal the wounds between the long oppressed, impoverished black majority, and the wealthy white minority which controlled most of the economy and military. For the majority, bitter from the long fought battle to end apartheid, Springboks Rugby (comprised mostly of white players), represented the old South Africa. They hated everything about the sports team, especially the team colors of green and gold, which they wanted to be replaced with colors indicative of the new Rainbow Nation colors.

Mandela seized the opportunity to unite his country, and supported Springboks rugby and their traditions. He developed a rapport with team captain Francois Pienaar, and on the day of the championship, he wore the green & gold jersey sporting Pienaar’s #6. The gesture spoke volumes. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up at the final wearing a Springbok on his heart. When he walked into our changing room (before the match) to say good luck to us, he turned around and my number was on his back. It was just an amazing feeling,” said Pienaar.

President Nelson Mandela in his #6 Springboks Rugby Jersey
President Nelson Mandela in his #6 Springboks Rugby Jersey

The 1995 Rugby World Cup was the first major sporting event held in post-apartheid South Africa, and in fact, it was the first time the country was even allowed to compete. They had been banned in previous years due to sanctions and boycotts imposed by other countries over the racist policies of apartheid.

South Africa was seated 9th that year, and fought their way through Australia, Romania, Canada, Western Samoa, and France to make it to the championship match against the favored New Zealand All Blacks. With the score tied 12-12, Joel Stransky landed a drop kick in extra time, making the final score 15-12 South Africa. Here’s a video of the match winning kick:

At the final ceremony, President Mandela worked his way down to the field to personally hand over the championship trophy to Pienaar. He shook his hand, placed his hand on Pienaar’s shoulder, and said, “Thank you for what you have done for South Africa.” To which Pienaar replied, “No, Madiba (Mandela’s tribal name), you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.” Recalling the moment Pienaar sums up the emotion perfectly, “it just gave me shivers down my spine.” Here’s video footage of that moment:

And for the big rugby fans, here’s the entire championship match.

The epic underdog victory, and the uniting spirit of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly helped the healing process for a nation struggling with the realities of democracy and drastic change. The story was immortalized in the 2009 sports biopic, Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood. The movie starred Morgan Freeman as President Mandela, and Matt Damon as Springboks team captain Francois Pienaar.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus

If you haven’t seen it, you should. People involved with the team and that era say that the film keeps true to the real story, and shows the brilliant courage of Mandela reaching across the aisle to the very people who had imprisoned him for 27 years of his life. He believed that for South Africa to succeed, the country needed to let go of all the bitterness, and forgive the misdeeds of the past.

Following Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at the age of 95, the world is in mourning, with support pouring in from world leaders across the globe. President Obama said this morning, “We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with. He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages. I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example set by Nelson Mandela.

When remembering Nelson Mandela, there’s one word the people of the world will use most…

Nelson Mandela, 1918 - 2013
Nelson Mandela, 1918 – 2013

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