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The story of how Nelson Mandela and the Springboks unified South Africa

Rohith Nair
3.14K   //    06 Dec 2013, 18:44 IST
Nelson Mandela with South Africa's Rugby captain François Pienaar.

Nelson Mandela with South Africa’s Rugby captain François Pienaar.

“Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” – Nelson Mandela

Humanity lost a fearless leader today when Nelson Mandela died of a lung infection at the age of 95. People the world over mourned the death of the man who overcame countless obstacles to see a unified country. And in 1995, he used sport to bring together millions of people around South Africa, both black and white, under one banner – that of the indomitable Springboks: the South African rugby team.

That a sport would unify a country torn apart by apartheid was beyond most people’s wildest dreams. But the first black President of South Africa had a vision. Mandela saw the opportunity when it presented itself when the country hosted rugby’s most prestigious event.

South Africa had suffered for years in the sporting arena thanks to apartheid. Black players were not allowed anywhere near the team because of the segregation policy. The country was subjected to various international boycotts. Cricket suffered as early as the late 1960s, FIFA suspended South Africa in 1963, Formula One teams boycotted the Grand Prix and the Davis Cup team was not allowed to compete. The country was not even allowed to participate in the Olympics for more than three decades!

All this while, Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison, most of the time in a cell that was just 8 feet by 7 feet. But upon his release, Mandela had a plan to put South Africa on the map again and repair its damaged reputation as a nation. And after he was elected President in 1994, he decided to transform it from an apartheid ravaged country to a democracy which embraced all races.

Mandela was no stranger to sport. His interests in sport varied from long distance running to amateur boxing in his younger days. And in the rugby team, he saw the opportunity to show the world that South Africa had moved past apartheid and was ready to be accepted by society as a multi-racial country.

The team was dominated by Afrikaans players, and Mandela ensured that he kept in constant touch with the team captain Francois Pienaar. Mandela believed that if the host nation could perform well in the tournament, they could empower its citizens with a belief that the nation could now move forward in a modern world.

And they did just that. Captained by the inspirational Pienaar, the Rainbow Nation celebrated as the undefeated Springboks made it to the Rugby World Cup final. Their opponents? The mighty New Zealand All Blacks.

Mandela attended the game wearing the South African rugby jersey, with a green cap to boot. The jersey had the number 6 – the same as that of Pienaar. The shirt used to be a symbol of pride for the white Afrikaners while at the same time it was hated by the native African people of the country. By donning the jersey, Mandela had put an end to the racial tension in the country as he embraced not white or black players, but a South African team.


In a pulsating contest that went into extra time, South Africa beat the number one team in the world 15-12. Joel Stransky was their hero in the game with 15 points after converting three penalties and two drop goals. As the final whistle blew at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, an entire nation erupted in celebration as it started its journey into a new era as a democratic nation with a victory in an international sporting event.

Mandela himself was present to hand over the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar after the game. And as he did so, Mandela patted his shoulder, smiled and said, “Thank you for what you have done for South Africa.” Pienaar responded immediately, “No, Madiba. You’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.”

The movie ‘Invictus’ directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela, is a tribute to the late President and the South African Rugby team.