Madiba out five short of a century
Harare – Nelson Mandela’s iconic sporting moment was scripted on a rugby field in South Africa, wearing the green jersey of a Springbok team that had become the sporting arm of the brutal apartheid regime and celebrating his country’s stunning rise to be world champions.
But, as the world says goodbye to South Africa’s first black president, who was buried at his rural home of Qunu on December 15, Madiba as he is affectionately known, leaves behind footprints that can be seen throughout the entire sporting spectrum.
Mandela's critics will say that he did not do enough to help the mainstream sporting disciplines of rugby and cricket in his country to dump a past, in which they were dominated by white athletes, and give many black players a chance to compete and represent the Rainbow Nation.
Former South African pace bowler, Makhaya Ntini said South African cricket was still a racial minefield and black players do not get as fairer a chance, to play for the Proteas as their white counterparts.
In 2012, Ntini claimed that wicket keeper, Thami Tsolekile, would have been playing for the Proteas, if he were white.
“People will say we are talking politics, but we need to say these things,” Ntini, who played 101 Tests for South Africa and took 10 wickets at Lord's in England, said.
“I don't understand how we can only have one black cricketer in our squad.
“I always felt as if I was on the verge of being dropped. Whenever a new bowler came into the side, the question always was whether they were coming to take my position.”
Mandela was a raw amateur boxer in his youth but he made his mark elsewhere in sport – destroying the racial barriers that had made the Springboks a hated team among black South Africans and playing a big role in helping FIFA bring the Soccer World Cup to Africa for the first time.
“Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire,” Mandela once said.
“It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to the youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.
“It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Mandela broke those barriers when it came to the uneasy relationship that existed between the Springboks and the majority black population of South Africa, many of whom despised this team as the sporting face of the apartheid regime and would privately support their opponents.
His decision to embrace the Springboks, during the ’95 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa, and become a part of the team in their quest to become world champions was a big game changer in the relationship between the team and black South Africans.
As immortalised in Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus, dedicated to Mandela’s love affair with the Springboks during that World Cup campaign, Madiba adopted the Boks and became one of them, winning the hearts of a team that had only one coloured player and whose majority of fans were unrepentant racists who used to wave the old apartheid-era flag at the team’s matches even after Independence.
“The ANC had spent years using rugby as a stick with which to beat white people (talk to any prominent Afrikaner from those days and they'll tell you how much the international rugby boycott hurt),” journalist and author, John Carlin, who wrote the best-selling book, ‘Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Made A Nation’, wrote in British newspaper The Telegraph.
“Mandela said why not use it now as a carrot? Why not use the Springbok team to unite the most divided nation on earth around a common goal?
“So, barely a month after he had taken office, he invited François Pienaar, the Springbok captain, for tea at his office in Pretoria.
“He wooed him instantly and, without the big blond son of apartheid quite knowing it yet, recruited him to the new South Africa cause.
“Mandela's challenges did not only lie on the white side of the apartheid fence. He had to do some tough political persuasion among his own black supporters too.
“They had been brought up to detest rugby.
Next to the old anthem and the old flag, there existed no more repellent symbol of apartheid than the green Springbok shirt.
“That was why the blacks-only pens at rugby stadiums were always full on international match days, cheering the Springboks' opponents.”
“It wasn’t a popular decision to make, many accepted that it was a huge political gamble.
“They booed me,” Mandela recalled. “My own people, they booed me when I stood before them, urging them to support the Springboks”
Mandela was one of the key figures whose charisma helped South Africa became the first African nation to host the FIFA World Cup and, fittingly for a man who made a huge mark on the sporting field around the world, his last public appearance came in a football stadium, in the biggest football game ever played on this continent.
In July 2010, a frailer Madiba made his appearance at the FNB Stadium, on a bitterly cold night in Johannesburg, to wave to a capacity crowd gathered to watch the final of the World Cup between Spain and the Netherlands.
Three years later, world leaders, and thousands of South Africans, would gather at the same stadium for Mandela’s funeral service.
FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, said Mandela had inspired millions of people around the world, and remembered that night when Madiba made his final public appearance at the FNB Stadium.
“When he was honoured and cheered by the crowd at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium on July 11, 2010, it was as a man of the people, a man of their hearts, and it was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced,” said Blatter.
“For him, the World Cup in South Africa truly was 'a dream come true'.
“It is in deep mourning that I pay my respects to an extraordinary person, probably one of the greatest humanists of our time and a dear friend of mine ‑ Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
“He and I shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship, and to teach basic social and educational values as a school of life.
“Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever.
The memories of his remarkable fight against oppression, his incredible charisma and his positive values will live on in us and with us.
“As a mark of respect and mourning, the flags of the 209 member associations at the Home of FIFA will be flown at half-mast and there will be a minute's silence before the next round of international matches.”
The English Premiership observed a minute of silence at all their matches last weekend while the South African Premiership has postponed all the matches that were set for this weekend.
“Madiba was responsible for lifting the spirits of our football nation from the talks to unite the Association to victory at the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations,” South African Football Association president, Danny Jordaan, said in a statement.
“He served as the catalyst in our bid for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”
If life was cricket, they would have said Mandela went five short of his century.