Mandela's love for sport helped build the Rainbow Nation

Mandela's love for sport helped build the Rainbow Nation

Countless political leaders around the world have known how to court the popularity of sports. But none of them has had a better feel for it, or a more genuine, yet simple, grasp of the nation-building potential of sports than Nelson Mandela.

From childhood, he loved to run. In his youth, he learned to box. While imprisoned on Robben Island, games of soccer kept him and his fellow prisoners sane. And once he was freed, once he was handed the mandate to rebuild a broken, apartheid-riven South Africa, he used what he called the power of sports to help unite his people.

It is a phenomenal legacy, the real power of the mind to grasp that by playing together and wearing the same shirt, South Africans could learn to be one ‘Rainbow Nation.’ Those of us lucky enough to have met him in the 1990s grew to cherish his incredibly bold, yet almost childlike, trust in sports to heal horrendous divisions.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Cup of Nations in soccer, the 2003 Cricket World Cup, and then the big one – the 2010 FIFA World Cup – were all played on South African soil. Those events forged and framed a philosophy that by playing together and cheering together, people could realize that the notion of dividing men, women and children according to the colour of their skin was a nonsensical as it was disgusting.
Of course, it was not just one man’s vision. Mandela grew up as a child in a sporting nation before he was a fighter against apartheid, yet after 27 years of imprisonment, his spirit and his reason remained unconquered. We are privileged that sports were such a tenet, a tool if you wish, to Mandela’s way of forgiving, if not forgetting.

“Sport,” he said, “has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” He used that speech a number of times, honed and developed it to later include an overt reference to the breaking down of racial barriers and of all forms of discrimination.'' It was, of course, spoken with a lawyer’s mind and a politician’s sense of opportunism.

Overcoming apartheid

The moment when South Africa’s rugby team won the World Cup on home soil in 1995 – just a year after Mandela was elected the country’s president – will forever be cast as the ultimate picture of sport overcoming apartheid. When Mandela wore the green jersey and cap of the Springboks and handed the trophy to Franois Pienaar, it became the symbol of unification.

For here was the black leader, the freedom fighter turned head of the government, knowingly embracing the blond captain of a game, rugby, that was up to that time a singularly white game in South Africa. But it didn’t just happen. Pienaar was invited to tea with the president before the final.

The rugby captain was – and still is – moved by a life-defining experience of an acceptance by and friendship with Mandela.

It was not a show for the public. Mandela acted just the same,  and was just as genuine, with the young players from varied backgrounds at the less trumpeted African Cup of Nations. Soccer happened to be the game played in Soweto and other townships. Yet whites were never barred, never excluded from those games.

They could – and one or two brave souls did – play soccer together even in the worst times of bigoted rule. And they were accepted for their skill. So soccer, I once had the temerity to say to Mandela, had earned the right to be South Africa’s game because it eschewed prejudice. He replied that South Africa would bid for the Olympic Games and for the soccer World Cup when it had the resources to do so. Cape Town did bid for the 2004 Olympics, but lost out to Athens.

South Africa went for the 2006 World Cup, but it was rebuffed in favour of the safer option, Germany. But South Africa persevered. Mandela was personally involved, and had to be, to win the votes, to give those “power to change the world” speeches when he made a personal appeal to the FIFA executive committee.

Mandela, though, could not look after the bid full-time, or steer it through the inner politics that motivate FIFA’s dreadful selection processing of choosing where to play its billion-dollar tournament. Mandela chose Danny Jordaan, like himself an anti-apartheid activist from his student days, to lead the successful bid to bring the World Cup to South Africa in 2010.

When Mandela’s presence was needed, he was always there. When the gamble paid off and the decision was made six years ahead of the tournament, Mandela said he felt like a 15-year-old handed a dream. Already old and always delegating, Mandela knew that this was the greatest test of nationhood that his country could and would face in his lifetime.