Rugby, football – and a nation united

9 July 2010

In 1994, when South Africa shed the shackles of apartheid, it did not mean the country was automatically set on a path of unity. Sport – starting with the 1995 Rugby World Cup, followed up by the 1996 African Nations Cup, and continuing with the 2010 Fifa World Cup – played and continues to play a major unifying role.

During the apartheid years, sport was used as a major tool for resistance against the system of racial segregation, with South Africa being banned from competing on the international stage in most sporting codes – including cricket, rugby and football.

These sanctions served the purpose of both highlighting the unjust system in the country at the time and of applying pressure on the National Party to end apartheid.

As the first democratic president of South Africa, Mandela sought to work toward the goal of bringing together a once divided people and to lead South Africa on a path to success.

In what for many seemed an insurmountable task, the Nobel Peace Prize winner did not just look to the corridors of government for a solution, but also to the playing field – a possible indication as to why South Africa has hosted so many major sporting events since.

Rugby World Cup

The first of many major sporting events hosted in the country was the IRB Rugby World Cup in 1995 – a tournament which saw South Africa lift the trophy at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg.

South African cricket administrator Ali Bacher is no stranger to the importance of sport in South Africa’s history, having captained the South African cricket team in 1970 against Australia just before SA Cricket was kicked out of international participation. He also pushed for the breakdown of racial divisions in the sport, and shared a poignant moment with Mandela on the issue of sport and national unity.

Bacher speaks about the mood leading up to the Rugby World Cup. This event saw calls for the removal of South Africa’s sporting emblem – the Springbok – due to its link with the predominantly white-dominated sports of the past.

Mandela saw this argument as a chance to send a strong symbol to the white and Afrikaans population, many of whom feared reprisals from the apartheid years, by lending his support to their cause.

Mandela’s wisdom

“To give an indication of [Mandela’s] wisdom and insight, in 1995 – halfway through the Rugby World Cup – he came out publicly to support players wearing the Springbok emblem which, to many, represented a sporting code that only whites could play for in the apartheid era,” says Bacher.

“A television crew came to me to ask about the response from South African cricket, and I said that we wanted a neutral emblem that would satisfy both white and black.

“Soon after, Mandela invited me to lunch and he took me out onto the patio with two of my board members,” says Bacher. “He started to explain that he understood that among Afrikaans people, rugby and the [Springbok] emblem were very important.”

Referring to the now famous post-match celebration in which Mandela come out onto the field wearing a South African rugby jersey with captain Francois Pienaar’s number on the back, Bacher says Mandela “told me he wore the rugby jersey and the emblem … because he wanted to thank [Afrikaans people] for their support for him as South Africa’s first black president.

‘I see a difference now in 2010’

“In South Africa, the majority of the black population supported soccer, while the majority of whites supported rugby,” says Bacher. “Mandela rallied the black people to support rugby and united a country. The man that made it all happen was our revered icon, Nelson Mandela.”

Reflecting on the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Bacher says: “I see a difference now in 2010. At the grounds, thousands of whites have been dressed in Bafana Bafana clothing going out to support the national team – where previously it would be mainly black people.

“I see black families and white families talking about the national team, taking pictures with each other. These are small things for people from overseas, but from a South African point of view this is very significant.

“We have arrived at a state of true unification in this country.”

1996 African Nations Cup

Another sporting icon who has witnessed first-hand the power of sport in South Africa’s psyche is former Bafana Bafana football player, Mark Fish, who was part of the team that lifted the African Nations Cup trophy in 1996 at the very site where Soccer City stadium now stands.

In another successful sporting tournament hosted by South Africa, the 1996 African Nations Cup was more than just a football tournament, as Nelson Mandela once again came out in the captain’s jersey to hand over the trophy to the victorious team.

“In 1996 we represented a nation and saw what we are seeing now,” says Fish. “White people came to [the then] FNB stadium to support football and the nation. It was brilliant. Before, these people would know the rugby team, but after 1996 – with Mandela supporting the team – they knew who we were.

‘We can build on this’

“It was the highlight of my football career – not winning the trophy, but seeing how people came together and united behind Bafana Bafana,” says Fish. “That’s why I think we ended up winning the tournament. The way the country got behind us was absolutely phenomenal.”

Fish believes the 2010 Fifa World Cup has also had a dramatic effect on the nation.

“We have seen a nation get behind Bafana; people are talking about football. The challenge for us as a nation and a footballing nation is to keep the standard that we have now reached,” says Fish.

“We can build on this if we continue to work together as a nation.”

Source: 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Organising Committee