In death as in life Nelson Mandela has galvanised a nation. As he brought the peoples of South Africa together when the apartheid era came to an end so his death has united the nation again – this time in celebration of his life and grief for his passing. And, as a nation mourns the loss of a great leader who was able to bury the past and unite its people in a spirit of reconciliation, so too it is perhaps the time to reflect on the debt that South African rugby owes to Mandela.
One of the most iconic moments in world rugby was on 24 June 1995 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg when Mandela handed the William Webb Ellis trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar wearing a replica of Pienaar’s No 6 jersey, while the whole crowd comprising mostly white South Africans were shouting “Madiba, Madiba.” And, after the game, the streets were filled with people of all colours embracing each other as they celebrated their country’s Rugby World Cup victory.
But for Mandela, however, things could have been very different. As the first President of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela faced the problem of reassuring his country’s four million whites that their rights and culture would be respected. He recognised that the Springboks’ importance in that culture but that they were also a hated symbol of the apartheid era. To the consternation of some of the new regime who wanted the name abandoned, Mandela lent his support to both the name and the team. He protected the Springbok identity in those politically turbulent times when other “white” sports were made to give up their titles and emblems.
That year, Mandela supported the team at a match against England at Loftus Versfeld, in the heart of Afrikaner South Africa, and was roundly cheered by the crowd. He was visibly disappointed when the home side lost and according to the late Luis Leyt, then President of the SARU, Mandela asked him what he planned to do to correct things – measure of his interest in seeing the Springboks do well at the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.
Mandela then visited the Springboks in Cape Town as they were training for the world championship and there asked if he could have a No 6 jersey, the one he would eventually wear on that momentous occasion in June in Johannesburg. And his support for the team continued. In 2007, he invited the players to his hotel in Paris during the RWC tournament and, the following year, invited them to his 90th birthday celebrations at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Johannesburg.
Former Springbok captain John Smit has no doubts about Mandela’s influence on the Springboks. He says that the game would have eventually become a multi-racial sport but Mandela hastened the process and that, “The way he embraced the players, the game and the Bok badge had a huge influence on where the game is today.”
Echoing this view, SARU President Oregan Hoskins says,” South African rugby owes its position in the world to Nelson Mandela. Whereas many other politicians would have lobbied for rugby’s destruction because it was seen as a racist sport, Mandela saw it as an opportunity to bring black and white together.”
In 1995, Mandela had a custom rugby shirt made especially for him that was to become an important symbol of unity in the new South Africa. Your customised rugby shirts from Clifton Clothing may not unite a country but they will definitely help bring your team and supporters together.