“Sports have the power to change the world. They have the power to inspire and unite people who have but a few things… and breaks racial barriers even with more ease than the most powerful governments.” – Nelson Mandela
The political situation and general environment was not very peaceful in South Africa in the early 1990s. Hate, racism, tyranny and violence are just a few words which are associated with this place and time. But there was one man who was more determined than anyone else to turn his whole country around.
Nelson Mandela, the once violent activist, who was portrayed as the devil himself by the South African media, had a tenacious intent to lead the change. Not only did he take advantage of being in prison to grow into a mature leader but he also thought of a plan to become the nation leader.
Mandela began to take his plan to action when he had meetings with prison guards and many important people connected to the Apartheid government. By showing great manners, by showing that he knew the Afrikaner culture and spoke their language, Madiba surprised everyone he met. Thus, it became easier for him to persuade them to be able to reach the president after several other meetings.
All that time in prison making an effort to get to know the culture of the ancient enemy was finally worth it. These meetings started when Mandela was still in prison, and his release didn’t stop them.
After being released from prison, Mandela used his great charisma and his talent for political leadership in order to persuade the South African people. Basically, he was trying to convince coloured people to forgive white people after years of oppression, while also convincing white people that coloured people would not retaliate if they were given more privileges.
This was definitely a tough task for Nelson Mandela. However, this situation didn’t go unnoticed throughout the world because of the global political paradigm change (Berlin wall fell, communism was declining…), and international media were rooting for Mandela.
As he became the President of the Republic of South Africa, he had the Rugby World Cup in mind as a fundamental tool to unite the country. At that time and place, Rugby was loved by the white population and considered as a symbol of their pride and identity. On the other hand, this sport was a symbol of apartheid for the black population.
They had been brought up to detest rugby. It was as repellent as the old anthem and the old flag. Nelson Mandela led his government to make the necessary changes to all this apartheid symbols in order to make the black population feel connected to their nation, while avoiding stripping the white population pride.
He also invited François Pienaar, captain of the Springboks (South African Rugby team), for tea at his office. Pienaar was surprised because the president was very down to earth. In his smooth style, Mandela empowered the captain to make a great World Cup campaign for the better of his country.
This World Cup was going to take place in South Africa, which makes it even more important. The Springboks were motivated by their manager (Morné du Plessis) to learn the new South African anthem which was composed by the old anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”, and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” which was a very important song for the black population. The players knew the old one, but they had to learn the new part in order to prove their commitment to the unity of South Africa.
Mandela was the leader of this movement, but much of the credit is due to the people who surrounded him. For instance, Edward Griffiths, CEO of the South African rugby union, came up with the slogan “One Team, One Country” which had a great impact when it was used in national media to hype and unite the South African people.
They started winning and going through every stage of the tournament while the nation was increasingly supporting them. Through the earlier stages, both players and the white fans were surprised by the growing enthusiasm of the black population regarding the Springboks.
They reached the final and they were considered underdogs, as they were going to play against the almighty All Blacks. Nelson Mandela courageously showed up on the pitch wearing the green Springbok shirt and the respective hat, and went on to shake the hands of every player of both teams. Even though 95 per cent of the fans in the stadium were white, just after a moment of perplex silence, they started to scream “Nel-son! Nel-son!”
Even though the odds were against them, the Springboks won with a drop goal in extra time. As the final whistle blew, Mandela appeared on the pitch again, and the crowd supported him even more, as they got very emotional with the first ever rugby world cup for South Africa. When Mandela was going to hand over the cup to Pienaar, they both thanked each other for what they had done for the country.
These celebrations marked the peak of unity for South Africa in their recent past. However, this feeling was not sustainable, since people were euphoric after such an event. Regardless of that, South Africa became more stable than they were before. Besides, this whole campaign provided a great example of leadership from Nelson Mandela, not only to the South African people but also to the rest of the world.
“It always seem impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela