News / Africa

S. African Rugby Hero Reflects on Unlikely Friendship with Mandela

FILE - Nelson Mandela, himself wearing a Springbok rugby jersey, presents the World Cup trophy to South Africa team captain, Francois Pienaar, at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium in 1995.
FILE - Nelson Mandela, himself wearing a Springbok rugby jersey, presents the World Cup trophy to South Africa team captain, Francois Pienaar, at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium in 1995.
Darren Taylor
In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup tournament.  It was just a year after the country’s first democratic elections, the first time black people had been allowed to vote after decades of white minority rule.

But South Africa then was even more deeply divided along racial lines than it is now.  It was also split along sporting lines, with the white minority being passionate followers of rugby, and the black majority worshipping football, otherwise known as soccer.  


In most parts of black South Africa, the country’s rugby team, the Springboks, was reviled as a symbol of racial oppression.  The Springboks had been funded and adored by successive administrations of the National Party (NP) - the largely Afrikaner political organization that established apartheid in 1948.  

But the Springbok captain in 1995, Francois Pienaar, was convinced that winning the Cup could help reconcile black and white South Africans.

The burly blonde Afrikaner wasn’t alone. He found a powerful ally in then-President Nelson Mandela – the revolutionary leader of the African National Congress (ANC) who had been jailed for 27 years by the NP government for fighting against the white supremacist regime.  

Pienaar and Mandela formed an unlikely and dramatic partnership that sustained a nation at a particularly fragile time in South Africa’s often tragic history.
 

Current South Africa rugby player, Gurthro Steenkamp, in a modern-day Springbok jersey, with the distinctive emblem of a leaping antelope on the left side of his shirt
Current South Africa rugby player, Gurthro Steenkamp, in a modern-day Springbok jersey, with the distinctive emblem of a leaping antelope on the left side of his shirt
‘Madiba’ embraces the Springboks

The former Springbok captain recalls Mandela phoning him constantly during the 1995 World Cup, asking after the team’s well-being.  During the competition, the president also appeared on national TV to assure the Springboks of his support.  

Pienaar says Mandela’s backing “meant the world” to him and his team of underdogs.  Rugby pundits had written off their chances of winning the trophy, but the Springboks eventually battled through to the final.  Their opponents were the New Zealand All Blacks, who at the time were the mightiest force in international rugby.  Again, the experts maintained South Africa had no chance of victory.  

But Mandela disagreed with them, and in the dressing room of the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, a few hours before kickoff, he told Pienaar so.

“Madiba stood there, wearing a Springbok jersey; he had a Springbok badge over his heart.  It was very emotional for me, seeing this man, who had gone through so much, being willing to do this for us,” he recalls.

Ellis Park, as it appears today, with the city of Johannesburg in the background … In 1995, 65,000 people packed the stadium to see the South Africa rugby team win the rugby World Cup
Ellis Park, as it appears today, with the city of Johannesburg in the background … In 1995, 65,000 people packed the stadium to see the South Africa rugby team win the rugby World Cup
To this day, Pienaar refers to Mandela affectionately by the liberation hero’s Xhosa clan name, “Madiba.”  Yet the rugby player, like most white South African children of his generation and before, had grown up fearing Mandela as a “terrorist.”  But, in the space of a few weeks, Pienaar and his team containing just a single black player had come to know Mandela as a “symbol of everything that is good in humanity,” and a man willing to wear the green and gold Springbok regalia that had been created by his former oppressors.

Triumph for the Rainbow Nation

The ex-captain remembers walking out of the changing room and onto the field, “with the sounds of ‘Madiba!  Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!’” reverberating around the stadium.     

The cheers for Mandela, from a crowd of 65,000 that was almost exclusively white – many who had previously supported his imprisonment – made international headline news.  This moment, when South African whites cheered for the ANC leader as much as they did for their beloved rugby team, would come to be a powerful symbol of a changing South Africa.
Springbok player, Joel Stransky (number 10), kicks the goal that won the World Cup for South Africa … The Springbok rugby team later said Mandela had inspired them to victory
Springbok player, Joel Stransky (number 10), kicks the goal that won the World Cup for South Africa … The Springbok rugby team later said Mandela had inspired them to victory

And when they finally took the field, fired up by Mandela, the Springboks continued this transformation.  In a marathon game often described as one of the greatest ever sporting contests, South Africa narrowly beat New Zealand by 15 points to 12, with virtually the last kick of the game.  

Critics had called the Springboks “no-hopers,” dismissing any chance the team would do well.  But the no-hopers from the multiracial nation that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had described as “God’s rainbow people” had triumphed.  A proud and smiling Mandela, still clad in his Springbok rugby jersey, strode onto the field to shake Pienaar’s hand and to present the golden World Cup to him.

“When Madiba handed the trophy to me, I shook his hand, and he said to me, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa….’”  Pienaar says he was “dumbstruck” when Mandela, who had almost sacrificed his life so that South Africans could be free of racist domination, thanked him – a “mere white rugby player” – for his contribution to the country.
The Springbok win resulted in unprecedented, and multiracial, scenes of joy across South Africa …
The Springbok win resulted in unprecedented, and multiracial, scenes of joy across South Africa …

‘Leader’ and ‘Brave One’

Following the historic victory, Mandela maintained contact with Pienaar – even phoning him to congratulate him on the birth of his first son, Jean.  “Madiba gave him the Xhosa nickname, Nkokele, which means ‘leader.’  He also told me that Jean would be his godchild,” he says.

A few years later, Mandela invited Pienaar and his family to tea at the former president’s Johannesburg home.  The rugby player’s second son, Stefan, was five years old at the time.  After the boy begged Mandela to also be his godfather, the Nobel Peace Prize winner hugged him, laughed and declared, “I will call you ‘brave one.’”

Pienaar says, “That just goes to show what kind of a person Madiba is, that he always finds time for all people in life, no matter how small they are.  I think absolute humility is his greatest virtue.”

A scene from the recent Hollywood hit movie, Invictus, which was based on Mandela’s unusual relationship with Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar. On the left is actor Morgan Freeman, as Mandela, and to the right is Matt Damon, as Pienaar
A scene from the recent Hollywood hit movie, Invictus, which was based on Mandela’s unusual relationship with Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar. On the left is actor Morgan Freeman, as Mandela, and to the right is Matt Damon, as Pienaar
In 2007, in France, the Springboks – this time with new captain John Smit at the helm – again reached the World Cup final.  In a videotaped message to the team before the game, Mandela urged them to “play the game hard and honestly, and whatever the outcome – hold your heads high.  We are convinced that you will triumph and bring the trophy home.”

The Springboks indeed emerged victorious, beating England to once again win rugby’s most coveted prize.

Pienaar will always be grateful to Mandela for supporting what was then the “white sport” of rugby.  But he emphasizes that the freedom fighter should ultimately be remembered more for saving South Africa from what would have been a disastrous civil war.

He says, “Things didn’t go totally wrong in South Africa because we had the most amazing leader, at the right time.”

By supporting rugby, Mandela had suddenly and boldly gained the affection of millions of white South Africans.  Analysts agree the strategy probably avoided further tragedy in South Africa.  They continue to use it as proof of Mandela’s genius.  

Listen to report with former Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar
Listen to report with former Springbok captain, Francois Pienaari
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

You May Like

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid