Nelson Mandela’s positive effect on South Africa & rugby 10 years on

File photo of the late Nelson Mandela, celebrated for his fight and win against apartheid in South Africa. Here, he is seen addressing the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the General Assembly Hall of United Nations in June 1990. Photo courtesy of UN Photo/P Sudhakaran.

By Jeff Yong

Although South African president Nelson Mandela died on Dec 5 some 10 years ago, his name still crops up whenever the Rugby World Cup Championship is held once every four years.

And in the past two months, it was no exception. More so in the last one week when South Africa became the world champions for the fourth time in Paris after he Zealand All-Blacks 12-11 n the final.

Mandela, although no more with us, still towers over South Africa as the man who led the country to independence, the man who united a fragmented nation, and the man who still influences the Springboks, the name of the South African national rugby team.

Regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice, he received more than 250 honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Always held in deep respect within South Africa, he is often referred to as Madiba, his Thembu clan name, and is described as the “Father of the Nation”.

Last Saturday in Paris, the Springboks dressed up in green and gold again met New Zealand’s All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final. It was 28 years after they first met in the 1995 final in Johannesburg.

Again, Mandela loomed large over the Springboks, who, as many commentators had pointed, needed badly to win to put their nation back on track.

And they did manage a narrow one point win over the popular All-Blacks team, renowned for their ceremonial “haka” chants before a game!

In 1995, Mandela had showed up at the rugby stadium in Johannesburg wearing the no. 6 shirt of the Springboks’ captain, Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaan, and a Springboks cap.

Certainly, he dressed for the occasion. It was a tensed moment to savour as he knew how high the stakes were on unifying a nation that had just shaken off a very long and divisive apartheid regime by becoming the nation’s president a year before.

Donald McRae, who writes for The Guardian newspaper, described the 1995 final as beyond sport: “It felt historic. A World Cup final in the new South Africa, in the South Africa of a free Nelson Mandela, felt like a fresh beginning. It felt like the end of apartheid in the last area to surrender – rugby.”

Declaring himself as a South African, he added:”I was born into apartheid and grew up in a country which had jailed Mandela for 27 years. And so it felt profoundly moving to then hear the chant that gathered in booming intensity: “Nelson … Nelson … Nelson …”

And me, I had always been fascinated by this man who was kept in prison for 27 years until his release in 1990. Additionally, I was impressed by his humility for I had spotted a photocopy of a handwritten note written in pencil by him for some minor request when he visited Malaysia. Although I had forgotten the contents, I still remembered it as something written with such politeness and finesse.

Furthermore, I had also been fascinated by Mandela’s wit. When he was introduced to one of the rugby players on the pitch in the 1995 final and whose name was James Small, a player tasked to mark the huge legendary 6-foot 5-inch Jonas Lomu of the All-Blacks, Mandela shook his hands and said: “You’ve got a big job today, Mr Small.” That was Mandela for you.

In 1995, the Springboks lived up to their promise and won by a slim margin of 15-12 against the All-Blacks. But it was enough for the home team amidst the frenzy.

Before presenting the trophy to Pienaar, the South African captain, said:”Thank you for what you have done for South Africa.”  But Pienaar replied:”We could never do what you have done for South Africa.”

Although the Springboks had 65,000 fans rooting for them at he stadium, Pienaar captured the situation so aptly by saying:“We had 43 million South Africans today.”

On Oct 31, 2023, the Springboks returned home to a hero’s welcome, where the Financial Times described as their triumph as having “helped rally the troubled country dragged down by rolling blackouts, a stuttering economy and a national crisis of confidence.” The patriotic frenzy in part reflects South Africans’ desire for hope that eclipses even the last time the team won the Rugby World Cup four years ago, it said.

For me, I also saw the triumph in Paris was not about just winning the Webb Ellis Cup. It was more than that. It was about uniting a nation and moving the nation forward.

Such narratives also resonate high in Malaysia where we root for all our sporting ambassadors irrespective of race. The BBC’s coverage, both in print and radio, of the Rugby World Cup fits into the fabric of just what we need in Malaysia.  

Siya Kolisi, the Springboks’ first black and inspirational captain, who was only four during the 1995 final in Johannesburg, said so fittingly to BBC’s Radio 5 when describing their win:

“This trophy is for those who come from tough, disadvantaged areas. You can make something out of your life, even when the situation doesn’t look hopeful. People not from South Africa don’t understand what it means for our country.

“It is not just about the game. Our country goes through such a lot. We are just grateful that we can be here. I want to tell the people of South Africa ‘thank you so much’.

“This team just shows what you can do. As soon as we work together, all is possible, no matter in what sphere. In the field or in offices, it shows what we can do. I am grateful for this team. I am so proud of it.”

South African journalist Mo Allie told the BBC World Service’s Newsday:”Siya Kolisi comes from a poor background, not knowing where his next meal was coming from. For people back home, we’ve got serious economic problems. We have daily power cuts.

“It just gives the country so much hope, something to celebrate. It’s also made politicians reflect by showing that if you work together to pull in the same direction, things can happen.

“It just shows the power of sport and what it can do for a nation that is as troubled as South Africa.”

Ben Miller, who writes for BBC Sport Africa, said part of the appeal of the squad to South Africans is their relatability, enhanced by what Chulumanco Macingwane, of the Gwijo Squad fan movement, calls a “rebrand” during the last five years, allowing players from impoverished upbringings to establish themselves through unconventional routes.

“The fact that the Springboks now have a black captain is extraordinarily poetic,” Macingwane told BBC Sport Africa.”

“Rugby has put us on the map. It is the same as football has done for Brazil. Rugby unites us because it gives us a sense of common purpose – a banner that we can all get behind.

“If only more of our sporting federations understood that that is exactly what needs to happen.”

Miller writes: “Winger Makazole Mapimpi, a key figure in the 2019 triumph, is among the stars Macingwane points to, describing how the diversity of backgrounds and languages in the dressing room makes the squad vividly representative of that Rainbow Nation.”

Kolisi, the Springboks’ skipper, acknowledged after the final that he “couldn’t have dreamt” of being on the global stage as a youngster.

“With where we come from, a lot of us shouldn’t be here today. I have my own reasons to play rugby, my own goals and ambitions. I want to look after my family and make sure I look after my community, because without them I wouldn’t be here.

“Some are playing for their parents who are not with us anymore. What brings us together is our country. I can’t explain it to you.”

In the final analysis, sports play a strong part in nation-building. We certainly have a lot to learn from Nelson Mandela, the statesman that he was, with his words of wisdom in rallying his fellow countrymen on to better things and the tenacity of the Springboks, also the name of a medium-sized antelope found mainly in south and southwest Africa.

Jeff Yong, with many years of journalism experience behind him and an eye for the quirky as well, re-lives his passion for writing columns in Weekly Echo after having done so with New Thrill & The Malaysian Post many eons ago.