The 1995 Rugby World Cup was post-Apartheid South Africa's first foray onto the international stage; 5 years earlier Nelson Mandela garnered release from his imprisonment and a year prior the country held its first free elections resulting in a 62% margin of victory for the African National Congress (ANC) and a mandate for Mandela to rule the country that once viewed him as a traitor.
South Africa's struggle with apartheid is brutally documented in many languages; Mandela as the poster child for the problems of apartheid is just as documented, but viewing Mandela through the apartheid or post-apartheid prism doesn't allow for full examination of his character. That view reduces Mandela to a tired stereotype of a freedom fighter or revolutionary ' an image that betrays the righteousness of his cause and glosses over the violent means in which for many years he advocated. Mandela as the brutality of Robben Island or Mandela as the triumph of the oppressed majority is illusory; in the 23 years since his release South Africa is still troubled with extreme poverty in areas like Soweto; the silent bigotry of poverty is now the prominent face of racism.
Mandela is the revolutionary that never was; Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi, and countless other revolutionaries violently overthrew governments then ensconced in power proceeded to rape and pillage their own people, amassing personal fortunes rivaling those of corporate tycoons. Mandela flirted with communism, but never committed to its cause prior to his imprisonment, afterward he eschewed collectivism. His group, the ANC quietly murmured that the poster boy for their struggle was not the true believer. Mandela courting the West, Mandela encouraging business to stay in South Africa, Mandela refusing to visit the Soviet Union despite the superpower contributing vast amounts of its treasure to the ANC. Accuse Mandela of having been many things, but never accuse him of prostration.
The chaotic, frightened nature of South Africa in 1995 is where Mandela's ability to be independent, critical and forthright were best displayed. After Mandela's electoral triumph many white South Africans feared the repercussions of apartheid. How would the majority black population wield their power, especially with the internationally revered Mandela at the seat of power?
Mandela shredded symbols of apartheid's South Africa. Gone was the Dutch-inspired flag. The Afrikaner's National Party was swept into the dustbin of history. South Africa's new symbols reflected the country's black majority. The new flag flew colors from the ANC but also made sure to include colors honoring South Africa's British and Dutch heritage. Part of South Africa's new constitution created a divide between Mandela and his ANC. Mandela insisted on clauses guaranteeing the rights of the minority. Mandela guaranteed constitutional protections to the Afrikaner people. The Afrikaner people imprisoned him on Robben Island, forcing Mandela to work in the quarry where the sun's glare from the lime stole part of Mandela's eyesight; Mandela denied fellow black South Africans the right to oppress the Afrikaner. Forgiveness and peacemaking are never brutal.
Rugby is codified brutality. It is also most popular amongst white South Africans. Good leaders find opportunity where there is none and usurp conventional wisdom. Prior to 1995 the Rugby World Cup refused to allow South Africa to participate in response to apartheid. The Rugby World Cup was awarded to South Africa, and for the first time in ever, the Springboks competed in rugby's most prestigious tournament. One problem: the Springboks are revered by white South Africans and reviled by black South Africans. Seemingly symbols are not on Mandela's side. But there's one caveat: Mandela knows that his existence is a powerful symbol, powerful enough to transform all others.
The Springboks were a symbol of the Afrikaner's dominance of South Africa. After the ANC and Mandela took power many black South Africans called for the end of the name 'Springbok'. Mandela displayed deftness yet again. He did not yield to the forces looking to end the Springboks, rather he believed Archbishop Desmond Tutu's idea of a 'rainbow nation' was best exemplified by the entire country supporting their rugby team. Mandela's theory was success in the 1995 Rugby World Cup would have a great effect towards unifying South Africa if all South Africans could unite behind a controversial emblem.
The story has been told dramatically in Clint Eastwood's Invictus
and ESPN's 30 for 30 Series documentary 'The 16th Man'. The common theme is Mandela's intervention united the country. South Africa needed uniting. Sports has the ability to take people for a short time and positively bind them to a great cause. Civic pride through sports is a trope throughout the world from the rec leagues in city parks to the dynamic singing and chanting going on in stadiums such as Fenway Park in Boston, Anfield in Liverpool or Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg.
The Springboks went on a magical run, culminating in the final against New Zealand's vaunted All Blacks. The team united South Africa and, after staring down the All Blacks' haka, earned the Rugby World Cup.
The game itself was a prologue for what followed: Nelson Mandela, clad in a Springboks baseball cap and a Springboks rugby jersey, presented the Rugby World Cup to team captain Francois Pienaar. Ellis Park Stadium, filled to capacity with white South Africans thunderously erupted chanting the name of their hero as the trophy was presented to the Springboks. Their chants could be heard 30 kilometers away in Soweto.
The crowd was chanting, 'NELSON! NELSON! NELSON!'
There is no finer tribute to a true man of peace.