SA sport’s debt of gratitude to Mandela

11 December 2013

Some of South Africa’s leading sports stars, past and present, have been reflecting on the contribution of former president Nelson Mandela to their sports and lives in the wake of the great man’s passing last Thursday.

In September, Greg Minnaar thrilled the home crowd’s when he wore a Nelson Mandela-themed helmet on his way to being crowned mountain bike downhill champion for a third time in Pietermaritzburg. He spoke about the helmet and Mandela in a recent interview with Kevin McCullum.

‘At home in South Africa’

“The idea for the helmet came around the emotion of being back at home in South Africa at the World Champs,” Minnaar said.

“His health was poor and the country was thinking of him, but he was the man who defined the nation. He was our leader, and I could think of no better tribute to him - well, apart from winning the World Champs as well, I suppose.

“I told my helmet company what I wanted,” Minnaar said. “They always get the concept right. They took the quote I had chosen and wrapped it around the helmet. I chose green, gold and black, more for the colours of Nelson Mandela’s party than for the green and gold of the national colours.

“I wanted it to be for him.”

The quote on the helmet read: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“Those words were, for me, the essence of Madiba,” said Minnaar. “He was all about sacrifice and building a new South Africa.”

Springboks ‘owe thanks to Madiba’

Former Springbok captain John Smit, taking part in the golf Pro-Am at the Nelson Mandela Championship on the Mount Edgecombe Country Club course on Tuesday, spoke to Michael Vlismas about the great man after whom the tournament is named.

“He did a huge amount of work in preserving the Springbok and the emblem, and I think he took a lot of criticism for it from his peers at the time,” Smit said. “A large amount of thanks is due to Madiba for what he did for the Springbok team.

“The amount of time and effort he put into us, coming to see us, coming to games with us, flying over to Paris for the 2007 Rugby World Cup to wish us luck, and people will forever remember his part in the 1995 Rugby World Cup and him walking out in the number six jersey – it’s that fairytale that he created and made a reality in our country that makes us as sportsman all love him.”

‘He had that common touch’

Cricket great Shaun Pollock, like Smit a former national captain, also spoke to Vlismas on Tuesday, telling him about a phone call he received from Madiba on his wedding day.

“He phoned me to wish me luck,” Pollock said. “It was just after he had married Graca Machel. And when I was relieved of my captaincy duties he called me to congratulate me on how I handled the issue.

“He had that common touch,” Pollock said. “He understood you from a personal perspective. He would ask you about your kids and the team and so on. It wasn’t just a courtesy call. There was always more depth to it.”

‘Tremendous thanks’

Former Bafana Bafana striker Shaun Bartlett also had fond memories of Mandela. “As sportsmen we have to give tremendous thanks to him,” he said this week. “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been able to play in the United Kingdom and further my career.

“And he came and attended my wedding, which remains one of the greatest days of my life,” Bartlett said. “I’m privileged and honoured to have lived in an era where Madiba changed a lot, not only for this country but the whole world.”

Madiba Magic

Mandela’s love of sports was well documented and for a time it seemed that every person or team that came in contact with him derived some “Madiba Magic” from the man as they went on to great successes.

Most famously, in South Africa’s early days as a democracy, with his very visible backing, the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, and Bafana Bafana were crowned champions of Africa in 1996 when South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations.

‘Such a humble man’

“It was amazing when he presented me with the trophy,” former Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey told Eyewitness News on Friday. He’s such a humble man, and I learned a lot from the experience of chatting to him and talking to him.”

Remembering another occasion, Tovey added: “On the day he was inaugurated, we were playing Zambia, but he still came down to see the match. He realised how important sport was to help unify the country.

“Words can’t express the deep condolences we need to express to the family and to everyone involved,” Tovey said.

“Africans have lost their favourite son.”