18 July 2008
South Africans have reason to thank Nelson Mandela not only for his role in their country’s liberation from apartheid, but also for the part he played in ensuring that the world’s greatest sporting showpiece, the Fifa World Cup, comes to Africa for the first time in 2010.
‘Against doctor’s orders’
Mandela reportedly went against the orders of his doctor, who told him he could not attend the 2010 Fifa World Cup host country announcement ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland in May 2004.
When South Africa was announced as the host country, overwhelmed with joy and emotions, tears could be seen streaming from Mandela’s eyes.
There are many extraordinary photographs of him, but one that captured the spirit of South Africa’s foremost sporting achievement is of a beaming Mandela holding onto the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Reconciliation through sport
During his presidency, Mandela, who was an avid boxer in his days, lifted more trophies than any other South African leader, and has widely recognised the importance of sport in helping to promote reconciliation.
Sporting a Springbok rugby jersey and cap, he presented the coveted Webb Ellis Trophy to the then South African skipper Francois Pienaar to the delight of the capacity crowd at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg on 24 June 1995 after the hosts beat the New Zealand All Blacks.
South Africa had been a country divided for decades by the apartheid regime, but thanks to the unyielding willpower of this statesman the whole country came together to unite behind the Springboks.
Barely a year later, Mandela would take to the podium again to present Africa’s most sought after football trophy, the African Cup of Nations, to the then Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey. As with the Rugby World Cup, Nelson Mandela was sporting a Bafana jersey and cap.
In honour of Madiba, who reportedly said: “I feel like a young man of 15” after hearing the announcement, South Africa and South Africans alike should work together to make the hosting of the World Cup a successful event.
Preaching the spirit of Ubuntu
Probably one of the most recognisable men the world over, with all the accolades and awards under his belt, Mandela has remained rooted to the ground, ever-so-humble and preaching the spirit of Ubuntu to those who are willing to listen.
Even after South Africa was announced as the World Cup host nation, he reportedly said: “South Africans should treat this decision with humility and without arrogance because we are, after all, equal.”
As South Africans celebrate the man affectionately known as Tata, it is important to heed his call for humility and treat the occasion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to Celebrate Africa’s Humanity and use the tournament to unify, encourage and develop South Africans – and ultimately Africans.
In another 2010 milestone, Nelson Mandela returned to Robben Island, where he was incarcerated for 18 years, to mark his 89th birthday last year.
The celebrations featured a star-studded line-up of about 50 past and present football superstars who took part “90 Minutes for Mandela” match at the Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on 18 July.
Power to bring people together
According to Madiba, football on Robben Island was more than just a game. It was seen as a sport for survival. “It helped uphold the values of tolerance, of inclusiveness and reconciliation, and of non-racialism and peace that are still dear to all of us today.”
“Today is indeed an extra special birthday for me, as I have been given this wonderful gift of a football match played in my honor,” Mandela said in a recorded message before the match. “This match is more than just a game – it symbolises the power of football to bring people together from all over the world, regardless of the language they speak or the colour of their skin.”
South Africans have a history of rising to the occasion – and of all the challenges the country has faced in the past, none is greater than those the country has already overcome.
In 2010, Madiba will be 92, and staging a successful World Cup will certainly go a long way to celebrate and thank him for the human being that he is.