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

Kurdish Party Pushes Political Gamble to Run in Turkey Poll

HDP announces it will run as political party instead of fielding independent candidates in June election, but faces tough 10 percent threshold More

Twitter Targets Islamic State

New research shows suspending Twitter accounts of Islamic State, its supporters has been effective; group, its backers are facing 'significant pressure,' says terrorism expert More

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

Majur Juac made the leap from being a refugee in Africa to a master chess champion in US, where he shares his expertise with students 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.
NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Spacei
X
Rosanne Skirble
January 27, 2015 5:05 PM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Saved By a Mistake - an Auschwitz Survivor's Story

Dagmar Lieblova was 14 when she arrived at Auschwitz in December 1943, along with her entire Czech Jewish family. All of them were to die there, but she was able to leave after several months due to a bureaucratic mix-up which saved her life. Now 85, with three children and six grandchildren, she says she has a feeling of victory. This report by Ahmad Wadiei and Farin Assemi, of RFE/RL's Radio Farda is narrated by RFE’s Raymond Furlong.
Video

Video Weekly Protests in Korea Keep Japanese WWII Atrocities Alive

Every week in Seoul protesters gather in front of the Japanese Embassy to demand an apology and reparations from Tokyo for the thousands of South Korean women who were forced into prostitution during World War II. Although this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, these protestors have helped keep the issue of comfort women alive and made it difficult for Japan to move beyond its past wartime atrocities. VOA's Brian Padden reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Exercise: New Prescription for Parkinsons Disease

Exercise could be the new prescription for Parkinson's Disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. More than six million people worldwide suffer from Parkinsons and they're traditionally treated with medication and surgery. Shelley Schlender has more.
Video

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Greece’s youngest-ever prime minister, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, was sworn in Monday after his victorious far-left Syriza party entered a coalition with far right rivals. Tsipras says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts. So begins a new chapter for the country at the epicenter of Europe’s economic crisis - a change that has sent tremors across the continent, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Oil Price Drop Troubles Texas Producers

As oil prices have fallen over the past several months, drilling operations have slowed in some parts of the United States - including Texas, the state that surpasses all others in energy production. The Lone Star State’s energy output has been boosted in recent years by development of resources trapped deep below ground in the Eagle Ford shale deposit, which stretches across south central Texas. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Karnes City, Texas, the drop in oil prices has created concerns,
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid