New film revives memories of Mandela’s rugby moment

2009-12-08 11:22

WHEN South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup just after the

downfall of apartheid, the then president Nelson Mandela donned a green and gold

rugby jersey.

In the process he won over a sceptical white population in a

symbol of unity for the young democracy.

South Africa will relive that iconic moment this week as the new

Clint Eastwood (four-time Oscar-winning American actor, film director and

producer and composer) film Invictus premieres today in Johannesburg, conjuring

memories made all the more poignant ahead of the football World Cup here next


“At first we could not believe it when we saw him,” recalled former

rugby player John Allan, who was at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg for

the final against New Zealand on June 24 1995.

“All the crowd was silent and then... the whole crowd virtually

erupted en masse,” Allan said.

By wearing the jersey and walking on the field, Mandela strode into

a sport beloved by Afrikaners, descendants of the first European settlers who

institutionalised a violent racial segregation and imprisoned Mandela for


“It was the greatest thing he could do,” said Steven Roos,

operations manager at Rugby South Africa, who was also at the stadium at the


“At that point in time, we (the whites) knew about Nelson Mandela

as an ANC member, and the ANC was a terrorist group,” Roos said.

A one-time leader of the outlawed ANC’s armed wing, Mandela had

been a free man for only five years – and president for only one year – at the

time of the 1995 victory, after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid.


was released in 1990 with commitment to democracy and negotiated a deal that led

to the universal suffrage and the country’s first black head of state, earning

him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

“After the apartheid years and the elections, the (white) people

were very sceptical. They stocked up food because ‘Now that the blacks were

going to take over, there will be no food anymore’,” Roos said, voicing the

fears of the time.

But then Mandela emerged smiling, wishing good luck to a team whose

only non-white member was the mixed-race winger Chester Williams.

On the

president’s back was emblazoned an enormous No?6, number of the Springboks’

captain François Pienaar.

“I could not believe it. The people shouted Nelson, Nelson!” Roos


Now that moment is remembered as a dignified gesture of national

unity, but the opinion wasn’t so unified back then.

“At the time we were still trying to negotiate issues” in writing a

new Constitution, said Strike Thokoane, secretary-general of the Azanian

People’s Organisation.

Thokoane said Mandela wearing the jersey “was premature. That was

viewed as surrendering ourselves.”

In hindsight, political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi of the Centre for

Policy Studies said the euphoria of the Rugby World Cup overshadowed the

inequalities that remain in South Africa.

“Because he became the symbol of reconciliation, it masked the

reality of the lack of reconciliation among South Africans,” Matshiqi


“There is a perception that it is almost always the black person

that has extended the hand of reconciliation,” he said. “To some extent, white

people embraced Mandela but not the race from which he came.”

The 43% of the South African population living in poverty remains

almost all black. Until the daily lives of South Africa’s people improve, and

until the whites are seen reciprocating the goodwill shown by Mandela – now 91

and retired from public life – the country will struggle for “a common sense of

belonging,” Matshiqi added.

Allan said that especially in the world of rugby, not enough was

done to erase the colour line after the 1995 World Cup victory.

“They (powers that be) had the opportunity to transform the game,

but they did not do much,” he said, noting that the winning World Cup team in

2007 remained almost all white.

“Sport is the best tool to bring people together irrespective of

races, religion,” Allan said. “On the playing field, everyone is equal. You

share a common goal.”

That sense of shared purpose will likely re-emerge during the

football World Cup next year, Matshiqi said. “But beyond that euphoria, you will

see very few signs of reconciliation.”

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