Rugby - Mandela's iconic sporting moment

Following the death of Nelson Mandela, we take a look back at a moment when he used sport to help try and heal a nation.

AFP
Rugby - Mandela's iconic sporting moment
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Nelson Mandela (L) and Francois Pienaar 1995

When South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup just after apartheid, the new president Nelson Mandela donned a jersey and won over a sceptical white population in a symbol of unity for the young democracy.

"At first we could not believe it when we saw him," recalled former rugby player John Allan, who was in Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium for the final against New Zealand on June 24, 1995.

"All the crowd was silent and then... the whole crowd virtually erupted en masse," he 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 decades.

"It was the greatest thing he could do," said Steven Roos, operations manager at Rugby SA, who was also in the stadium at the time.

"At that point in time, we (the whites) knew about Nelson Mandela as an ANC member, and the ANC (African National Congress) was a terrorist group," he said.

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A onetime 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 rugby victory, after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid.

He was released in 1990 committed to democracy and negotiating a deal that led to 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'," he 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 6, number of the Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (pictured right).

"I could not believe it. The people shouted Nelson, Nelson!" Roos said.

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 Africanist party Azapo.

He said Mandela wearing the jersey "was premature. That was viewed as surrendering ourselves".

But the sight of Mandela wearing the Springboks jersey - with all the symbolism that entailed - was one of the defining moments in the life of one of the great statesmen of this or any other time.

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