THE 1995 WORLD CUP – MEMORIES
I thought I was over the deep emotions caused by the passing of Nelson Mandela – until I saw a documentary which featured the 1995 World Cup.
Memories of my youth came flooding back. I will always remember the first game of that World Cup on 25 May 1995. A person born on that day will be 18 years old today! It was against Australia and took place on a Thursday. South Africa was a very young democracy, heady with excitement. There were celebrations all around and we of course did not work that afternoon – as well as a lot of other South Africans. The match was against an old foe, and South Africa was a newbie on the World Cup stage. It was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid. It was also the first World Cup in which my country was allowed to compete. White South Africans were (and mostly still are) rugby-mad – but do not exclude a lot of fans from other races as well, especially in the so-called coloured community in the Western Cape. I think it dawned on many of my fellow South Africans for the first time then that the new democratic South Africa was way better than the old – even if there were growing pains. It took rugby to make them feel part of the new South Africa.
Life in the rest of the world went on – some of it joyful and some gruesome. The Bosnian Serb Army killed 72 young people in the Bosnian city of Tuzla that day – the war in Bosnia was in full swing and most of the world’s attention was focused on it. In South Africa though, that was far from our minds as we took in what was a dream for a lot of especially white South Africans – a rugby World Cup in our country who was until a few years before that, the skunk of the world.
Against all expectations, South Africa won the match 27 – 18. We were not the favourites and definitely not the favourites to win the Cup. We erupted in celebration and took to the streets on the back of a 4x4 vehicle as did many others. Driving in the streets of Hatfield, Pretoria that afternoon with the new South African flags to be seen everywhere on vehicles, people shouting, blowing their horns and whistling – we stopped at a traffic light (or a “robot” as we call it in South Africa), and I noticed a middle-aged black man with a wrapped plastic bag in hand, hurrying home. It was probably his lunch box, and he had a formal hat on with the end of a peacock feather sticking out of it, worn in a way many South Africans, even white politicians, wore hats in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He had to wait for the robot to cross and looked up at us. Naively thinking that he would follow soccer and would not have a clue about the rugby, and also perhaps with the arrogance of youth, I said: “Hi! Do you know we won today? The rugby? The Springboks won!” – in Afrikaans.
He looked at me and said loudly: “Ek wil hê hulle moet ALLES wen!” (I want them to win EVERYTHING!). I was taken aback … my surprise must have been evident as he smiled at me. I could only reply: “Mooi so!” (Great!).
In that moment I realised that this World Cup was important not just for white South Africans. From that moment on - long before the final - I was alerted to what South Africans of all races felt during that time – a sense of pride, a sense of unity. There was a groundswell of change – most of us knew, despite our differences, that we are all South Africans, regardless of race or creed, we are one nation.
When the final took place and again against all expectations South Africa won, scoring in the very last minute the winning goal, and Nelson Mandela in a Springbok No. 6 captain’s jersey handing the trophy to Francois Pienaar, the captain, I saw more grown men cry than I have ever seen in my life and have seen since.
Pienaar ensured his name in the history books with his answer to a question from the TV presenter on the stage: “How does it feel to have the support of 63 000 South Africans?” and he replied: “We did not have the support of 63 000 South Africans, we had the support of 43 million South Africans!” The crowd roared its approval.
Afterward, we decided we want to be amongst our countrymen and headed to Sunnyside in Pretoria which by then was already a mixed race suburb, emerging from its past as a whites only flatland – where a lot of us stayed during our studies. We partied through the night, memorably dancing with two Indian couples in a club which was so full there were very little space to move. That was also a first for us.
It ended at 6 am in a gay club called Steamers near the Pretoria station, the one place I knew that would still serve liquor until 4 am - with Cobus, my very straight housemate – playing pool against a few lesbians – a first for him as well. They beat him time and again which he could not fathom and insisted on playing until they lost a last game out of sheer fatigue. It was already dawn outside and full on sunlight when we emerged.
We only then went to sleep – having lived through one of the most memorable days in our country’s history. It is a day which I will never forget. I will treasure the memory of it, as we treasure the memory of a great statesman.
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