Nelson Mandela: Rugby Helps Unite a Nation
December 21, 2010 by duffgibson
At the moment I’m just finishing a book called Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel (as quoted below). It’s not a book about sport or history but it does refer to both in describing Mandela’s leadership skills. As was shown in the movie Invictus, Mandela used rugby as a unifying force in the racially divided nation of South Africa.
“Rugby came back into Mandela’s life when he became president. Job number one for him was to be the father of the nation, the patriarch who united white and black around a common vision.”
“When the threats of harmony were greatest, in 1994 and 1995, Mandela used a curious tactic: He turned to sports as a way of healing the nation. For years the ANC (African National Congress) had done everything it could to get the Springboks, the national rugby team, banned from international play. And they had succeeded. Now Mandela sought to have the ban on them lifted, and he became instrumental in bringing the rugby World Cup to South Africa. He thought rugby could be the great uniter, and not a divider. He began a charm campaign to win over the rugby establishment.”
Mandela showed great insight in to the potential that rugby had to unite black and white when it had in fact done the opposite for years. It’s no exaggeration to say that in a very pivotal moment in South African history, Mandela deterred a movement to have both the Springbok’s name and colours changed. To black South Africans, the Springboks had always been white South Africa’s team but Mandela knew that a team seen as representing the black citizens would be just as polarizing. In much the same way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had done decades before, Mandela sought to win his opponents understanding.
“In his most famous gesture of reconciliation, Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and cap to the rugby finals at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Staduium in 1995. When he strode out before the game to greet the team captain, the mostly white crowd began to chant, “Nel-son, Nel-son!” It was one of the most electrifying moments in the history of sport and politics.”