Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Full Nelson

How a sports-savvy Nelson Mandela used rugby to unify his troubled land

NELSON MANDELA once said that sports had the power "to change the world ... to inspire ... to unite people." The Chinese seem to have taken Mandela at his word, using the Olympic Games to project an image of their nation as a rising global superpower, while uniting and inspiring their own people around a vision of China as a country triumphantly on the march. Whether China succeeds in these goals, and in acquiring greater international respectability, remains to be seen. But make no mistake: Sports can exercise a powerful force in pulling a country together. Mandela himself showed how at a game he attended—the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup—a year after he became president of South Africa. He later described it to me as the tensest episode of his entire life.

This was, as they like to put it in South Africa, a hell of a thing to say. Mandela was no stranger to tense episodes. He had been his country's Most Wanted—on the run from the police, relying on all manner of disguises—during much of 1961 and '62. Then there was the morning of his trial for sabotage in 1964 when a judge was going to rule whether he would receive a life sentence or, as seemed more likely at the time, death by hanging. Or the day he arrived by boat in chains at Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz on the Atlantic. Or the small matter, after 27 years in jail, of liberating his people from the racist tyranny of apartheid. Or competing in South Africa's first ever free and fair elections, then being sworn in as the country's first black president in a vast ceremony as the world watched.

But no. What really made him nervous was a game between South Africa and New Zealand at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium. "Honestly, I have never been so tense," the world's grandest grand old man recently confided to me. "I felt like fainting." Mandela is one of the coolest people under fire you could ever hope to meet, but what made these statements all the more remarkable was that the sport in question, rugby, was one for which he had no particular passion and whose rules he did not fully understand. He might have been a visitor from Beijing watching a Packers game at Lambeau Field.

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.

Rugby seemed an unlikely instrument to make the country whole. Whites loved the sport. It was, as Mandela told me, their "religion." The national team, the Springboks, were the white nation's high priests. But black South Africans hated rugby, and the Springboks in particular, whose green jersey they saw as a loathsome symbol of apartheid oppression.

Mandela himself had never been, until 1995, a great fan of rugby, but he loved other sports. During the 1950s he was a dedicated amateur boxer who would run two hours before dawn from Soweto to Johannesburg and back, before taking up his day job as a lawyer. He has lived to the age of 90, and he has achieved his most heroic feats when he was well into his 70s, because he kept himself in superb shape. In prison he spent most of his time inside a cell the size of a double bed, but he ran in place and did push-ups and stomach crunches with fanatical persistence. During a three-year spell in which he shared a larger cell with three other political prisoners, he would infuriate his comrades by waking them up at five every morning with his one-hour runs around the cell's tight periphery. During his presidency, between the ages of 75 and 80, he would test the mettle of his bodyguards by making them accompany him on his unfailingly brisk, predawn one-hour walks.

Mandela may not have understood rugby very well, but he understood the political impact sports could have. That's why he seized on the Rugby World Cup. Mandela—in a tremendous act of self-interested generosity toward the vanquished whites—allowed South Africa to host the tournament, which had been awarded to the country in 1992. And then he 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 did this by enlisting the white stars of the team to his cause, persuading them to learn the new national anthem (previously a song of black protest) and to reach out to what initially was a mightily skeptical black population.

The Springboks beat France, Australia and others to reach the final against New Zealand, then the best team in the world. But 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.

John Carlin's book on Nelson Mandela, Playing the Enemy, is published this week by Penguin Press.

Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is

Mandela described the World Cup final as the TENSEST EPISODE OF HIS ENTIRE LIFE.