When Madiba made Pienaar the unlikely captain of South Africa’s soul

It’s worth recalling just how leftfield was Mandela’s decision to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a country still riven by mutual fear and misunderstanding


ON May 30th, 1981 the South African Springboks played Errol Tobias, who grew up as a farm kid on the Western Cape, in their Test team against a touring Ireland team. He was the first black rugby player to play for South Africa. Nelson Mandela was still nine years away from his prison release.

In the hours since Mandela’s death, the collage of images have inevitably focused on the harmonious day in 1995 when he appeared in the green shirt of the Springboks before the world cup final between South Africa and New Zealand.

Mandela’s decision to use rugby, for decades a touchstone for Afrikaans pride and international identity, as a means of broaching the mutual fear and misapprehension which governed the country in the immediate post-apartheid era has rightly been lauded as one of the deftest political masterstrokes of modern times. But it is worth recalling just how leftfield and unlikely the idea was.

Prior to 1981, Ireland had previously played South Africa in Lansdowne Road in 1970. Disturbances had marked their tour of England and Scotland and protests awaited them at Dublin airport. They had to stay in the Royal Starlight in Bray, a non-union hotel, as the ITGWU was boycotting their visit. The Post Office Officials cut off phone contact to the hotel. Some 6,000 people marched on the day of the match.

Those old Springboks games appear as a desperate or deluded attempt to pretend South Africa was a normal country and that apartheid was not a lunatic policy.

The selection of Tobias in 1981 was interpreted as a hollow gesture by a country desperate to avoid being left out in the cold.

Armed guards
When the Springboks arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, ahead of their summer tour that year, they spent the first night sleeping in a function room in Athletic Park, where camp beds and heaters had been provided. They had armed guards and were more or less under curfew through their entire visit. Protestors trailed them through the country and the test in Hamilton was cancelled after hundreds of protestors invaded the pitch.

Few teams have faced such hostility and loathing. In later years, players from that period tried to explain the mindset. They were young and they were rugby players: they just wanted to play.

Wynand Claassen, for instance, was staunchly anti-apartheid but desperately wanted to play rugby against the gods of the world game. And South African rugby was nothing if not ambitious: they wanted to beat the best. That tour, Claassen said later, was, “the final nail in the coffin, the final straw for what was happening.”

Except it wasn’t. Just six years later, a renegade group of All Blacks toured South Africa under the name of The Cavaliers.

The 1985 official tour was postponed just days before the All Blacks were due to travel when a pair of Auckland lawyers lodged a court injunction arguing the tour would contravene the constitutional principles of rugby union.

The players decided to organise their own tour and Colin Meads, the All Black of All Blacks, was secured as a coach. Only John Kirwan and David Kirk declined to travel. The tour caused ferocious debate within New Zealand and was a strange shadow tour, with the hosts treating the tourists as “the All-Blacks” even though officially, they were nothing.

South Africa won the series playing against a ghost team. As ever, fans in the pens reserved for black spectators cheered the opposition – and it never mattered who the opposition was.

To imagine then the Springboks rugby team would, in less than a decade become the symbol of post-apartheid South Africa was fantastical. It was a stroke of either luck or opportunism that the IRB, reacting with unaccustomed swiftness to the talks between the ANC and FW de Klerk’s government to end apartheid, awarded the World Cup to South Africa in 1992.

Two years later, Mandela was elected president in the first free elections and, at 74, was tasked with maintaining a nation trembling with racial tension and, it was feared, poised not for integration but civil war. Channelling the rugby World Cup as something for all South Africans to celebrate, effortlessly recruiting Springboks captain Francois Pienaar and then by simply showing up, in the Springboks jersey, on match day was enough.

Clint Eastwood’s cinema treatment of Mandela’s role in that World Cup demands several suspensions of disbelief – not least the idea of Matt Damon as an openside flanker. But it does capture the air of unreality – a kind of temporary magic – which can settle upon host countries during global sporting events.

Nervous times for the ruling class
The 1995 Rugby World Cup meant everything to Afrikaners – here, at least, was a familiar sight in the midst of turbulent, nervous times for the ruling class – and very little to most black South Africans. But Mandela hinted and cajoled and showed that even an almost entirely white team (14 years on from Tobias, Chester Williams was the lone black player in the squad) could become something for all South Africans to shout about.

It was, of course, all gesture and image: three years later, Mandela was involved in a legal wrangle with Dr Louis Luyt, the head of South Africa rugby and a deathless advocate of apartheid, over charges of enduring racism and nepotism within the sport.

When Fifa discovered South Africa and brought the 2010 World Cup to the country, there was disappointment that Madiba was not such a visible figure. The event was clouded by the tragic death of his granddaughter in Johannesburg on the eve of the event. And by then, Mandela was frailer, older and may have figured his appearances were not so necessary.

Still, his presence was everywhere. Thousands of fans made the pilgrimage to his childhood home in Soweto. Fans and players alike took the boat from Cape Town to Robben Island, a journey that feels like a pleasure cruise until you reach the bleak enclosure and tour the jail and, of course, stand outside that tiny, famous cell with its bleak furnishings, where he spent most of his 27 years in confinement.

Everyone had the same thought: how did he manage to remain sane?

When the New Zealand rebel rugby players drove into Soweto in 1986, they discovered the locals ran away any time they stopped their car: burly white guys roaming the neighbourhood did not bode well. That was the low point during a grotesque regime and a million years away from the rugby game between South Africa and New Zealand.

Mandela would claim he had never felt more tense. “I left like fainting,” he said and not for the first or last time, he was speaking for most of South Africa.

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