Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation
Soon to be a major motion picture in December 2009
Beginning in a jail cell and ending in a rugby tournament—the true story of how the most inspiring charm offensive in history brought South Africa together.
After being released from prison and winning South Africa’s first free election, Nelson Mandela presided over a country still deeply divided by fifty years of apartheid. His plan was ambitious if not far-fetched: use the national rugby team, the Springboks—long an embodiment of white-supremacist rule—to embody and engage a new South Africa as they prepared to host the 1995 World Cup. The string of wins that followed not only defied the odds, but capped Mandela’s miraculous effort to bring South Africans together again in a hard-won, enduring bond.
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On May 25, 1995, the Springboks would meet the reigning world champions, Australia, in the first match of the World Cup in Cape Town. The day before, the team was gathered at Silvermine, an old military base inside a mountainous nature preserve on the Cape Peninsula, where they had established a temporary training camp. On the eastern half of the peninsula's narrow waist, Silvermine was one of the most beautiful spots in South Africa. Looking north, you saw the totemic monolith of Table Mountain. Looking south, you saw the rocky extremity where the Indian and Atlantic oceans met. All around were cliffs, forests, valleys, and sea.
The team had just finished an afternoon training session when they looked up and saw a big military helicopter throbbing down from the sky. Morné du Plessis, who had been tipped off about the visit, had put on a suit and tie. As they gawked up at the flying machine descending toward the field, he announced that this was Mandela on his way to see them. They continued to stare as Mandela himself stepped out from under the rotor blades in a bright red and orange shirt, worn loose below the waist, in what had become his trademark presidential style.
As Mandela strode smiling toward them, the players crowded forward, jostling each other like photographers at a press conference, craning their necks to get the best view.
Mandela made some light remarks, raising some laughs, and then Du Plessis called for quiet so that the president could address the team. Somewhat to their surprise, Mandela started by taking up the same lofty themes he generally did when addressing white people. (His audience was all white that day, as Chester Williams was away nursing an injury.) He reminded them that the ANC had promised that the new government would keep the commander of the army, the national commissioner of police, the Reserve Bank governor, and the minister of finance. He then pointed out that, a year after the elections, his government had remained true to its word. As Afrikaners, they had nothing to fear from the ANC. Nor, Mandela added, breaking into a grin, from their opponents the next day.
"You are playing the World Cup champions, Australia. The team who wins this match will go right through to the end," he predicted, before returning to a solemn tone. "You now have the opportunity of serving South Africa and uniting our people. From the point of view of merit, you are equal to anything in the world. But we are playing at home and you have got an edge. Just remember, all of us, black and white, are behind you."
The players cheered and applauded, then Mandela took turns to chat with them one by one. "He asked me why I had dressed so formally to see him," Du Plessis remembered. "But what was amazing was the chemistry. The players were drawn to him immediately." Kobus Wiese admitted, "I can't remember why we laughed, but I remember we were laughing with Mandela the whole time he was there."
Hennie le Roux, the chunky center three quarter, decided out of the blue to offer Mandela a token of his gratitude for taking the trouble to come and visit them. When the president got to him, he handed him his green Springbok cap and said, "Please take it, Mr. President, it is for you." Le Roux paused and added, "Thanks a lot for being here. It means a lot to the team."
Mandela took it, smiled, and said, "Thank you very much. I shall wear it!" He put the cap on right then and there.
François Pienaar put the seal on the mountaintop ceremony with a brief message of farewell to Mandela. Referring to the next day's game, he declared, "There's one guy that now we understand we have to play for, and that's the president."
The Silvermine encounter redefined the Springboks' feelings for their president and their country. Describing the scene as Mandela boarded his helicopter and flew off, Du Plessis was almost lost for words. "I looked at the players as they looked up at the helicopter and they were like young boys waving, so full of this… excitement. These guys had all seen a million helicopters before but Mandela… well, he had won their hearts."
And he did them some good as a rugby team too. Pienaar had been worried about the tension among his teammates on the day before play began. He would usually try to find a way to break it, with a song maybe or a film, but this time Mandela had done his job for him. A year earlier, Mandela had put Pienaar at his ease in the presidential office. Now he had done the same for the team as a whole. "He relaxed the guys. His interaction with the team was jovial, always smiling, always cracking little jokes. And he always has time for everyone. He'd stop and chat, and put the players at ease. That was very special before the opening match."
Mandela may have lowered the Springboks' stress, but he couldn't banish it entirely. Few people actually died on a rugby field, but no sport—in terms of pain endured and brutality of collision—was closer to war. Rugby players took and gave hits as hard as American football players without any helmets, shoulder pads, or other protective gear.
And rugby demanded far more stamina than did American football. Each rugby match was played in two forty-minute halves with only a ten-minute break between them and no timeouts except for injury. But physical fear weighed less heavily on the players than the burden of national expectation. In less than twenty-four hours they would face Australia's Wallabies, one of the five teams with a serious chance of winning the World Cup, along with France, England, New Zealand, and South Africa. Mandela might have made them feel special, but what still remained to be seen was whether the Springboks could channel that pressure in their favor during the game itself, or be crushed under its weight.
It also remained to be seen how much support black South Africans would really give the Springboks, how effective Mandela had been in his efforts to persuade his people that the old green-and-gold jersey was now theirs too.
The Presidential Protection Unit provided as good a barometer of the national mood as any. They were one group of South Africans who went to bed on the night before the game against Australia feeling as tense as the Springboks themselves. But for different reasons. "For that first game against Australia the security challenge was huge and the security arrangements enormous," said Linga Moonsamy, the former ANC guerrilla and a member of the PPU since Mandela's inauguration.
"We spent weeks planning for that day. We went up and down examining every high-rise around the stadium. We placed snipers on rooftops at strategic points, we placed people at the points of weakness inside the stadium."
The PPU was united in its sense of mission but split down the middle between blacks and whites, between former members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, like Moonsamy, and former members of the security police. "The Umkhonto guys and the police guys: people who'd been each other's mortal enemies, literally—we had wanted to kill each other for years," Moonsamy said, "though they succeeded, it should be said, more than we did."
The split extended to rugby. Being in Mandela's presence day in, day out for a year had smoothed Moonsamy's sharper edges. But he was still some way from actively supporting the Springboks or, for that matter, understanding what the game was about.
"There had been plenty of rumors that the white far right would use the competition to stage a terrorist act against the new democracy, against Mandela himself," Moonsamy recalled. "Our white colleagues were as aware of that possibility as us, and they were prepared, like us, but the big difference was that they were, if anything, even more nervous about the outcome of the game itself. We looked at them, smiled, and shook our heads. We just didn't get it."
At the event, the PPU's preparedness paid off. The South Africa – Australia game went without a hitch. Mandela was helicoptered from the presidential residence in Cape Town to a tall building near the stadium. From the building he traveled in a silver armored BMW to the stadium, with Moonsamy, who was number one bodyguard on the day, sitting in the passenger seat before him. Amid all the excitement, Mandela had not forgotten Hennie le Roux's cap. He wore it at the tournament's opening ceremony, where the sixteen teams taking part in the tournament went on parade there at Newlands Stadium alongside 1,500 dancers (or 1,501, Mandela himself joining and performing a lively jig), before the inaugural game itself. And he wore it when he went out onto the pitch to shake the hands of the two teams, to a warm cheer from the overwhelmingly white 50,000-strong crowd, among whom new South African flags abounded. He kept wearing it when the Springboks sang the twin national anthems, into which they now invested equal emotion, if in the case of "Die Stem" they still showed more familiarity with the words.
The game itself was a triumph for the Springboks. All the pressure had worked in their favor, in the end, and they beat Australia, whom none had beaten for fourteen months, more comfortably than the score—27 points to 18—suggested. Joel Stransky was the man of the match, scoring 22 of the Springbok points, 17 of them from kicks, one a try over the line. As the game neared the end a hastily painted banner emerged from the crowd that read, "Forget the Rhino. Save the Wallaby!" The Australians, themselves ferocious competitors in every sport they played, were gracious in defeat. "There's no doubt that the better team won," Bob Dwyer, Australia's coach, said. "Any other result, if we had sneaked it, would have been unfair."
That night the Springbok players celebrated as rugby players do, drinking until four in the morning, being feted—carried high aloft—everywhere they went. Kitch Christie, the coach, did not spare them their daily run at nine the next morning, from the heart of the city out to the seashore, but the throbbing pain of it was eased by the passersby who cheered them every step of the way.
A day later, their heads still rather the worse for wear, they found themselves on a ferry bound for Robben Island. It had been Morné du Plessis's idea. Du Plessis had begun to see just how enormous the impact of this "One Team, One Country" business was, not only in terms of the good it would do the country, but the good it would do the team.
"There was a cause-and-effect connection between the Mandela factor and our performance in the field," Du Plessis said. "It was cause and effect on a thousand fronts. In players overcoming the pain barrier, in a superior desire to win, in luck going your way because you make your own luck, in all kinds of tiny details that together or separately mark the difference between winning and losing. It all came perfectly together. Our willingness to be the nation's team and Mandela's desire to make the team the national team."
Robben Island was still being used as a prison and all the prisoners there were either Black or Coloured. Part of the day's event involved meeting them, but first the players took turns viewing the cell where Mandela had spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in captivity. The players entered the cell one or two at a time; it couldn't hold any more than that. Having just met Mandela, they knew that he was a tall man like most of them, if not as broad. It required no great mental leap to picture the challenges, physical and psychological, of being confined in a box so small for so long. Pienaar, who had done a bit of reading on Mandela's past, also knew that it was in this cell, or at any rate in this prison, that much of the energy and planning behind the boycott of the Springbok international tours had come. Morné du Plessis had a similar reflection, all the more powerful since he had been one of the Springbok players affected by it. Steve Tshwete, now the minister of sport, had told Du Plessis that, in these cells, they listened on the radio to the Springboks' games against the British Lions in 1980. The guards yelled at the prisoners to stop their cheering, but they cheered on. "And you know," Du Plessis told me, "looking around those cells, seeing what we put them through, you know what? I would have cheered for the Lions too."
After Mandela's cell the Springbok players went outside to the yard where Mandela had once been obliged to break stones. Waiting for them was a group of prisoners.
"They were so happy to see us," Pienaar said. "Despite being confined here they were so obviously proud of our team. I spoke to them about our sense that we were representing the whole country now, them included, and then they sang us a song. James Small—I'll never forget this—stood in a corner, tears streaming out. James lived very close to the sword and I think he must have felt, 'I could have been here.' Yes, he felt his life could so easily have gone down another path. But," Pienaar added, recalling the bruising fights he would get into when he was younger, the time he thought he had killed a man, "… but mine too, eh? I could have ended up there too."
Small remembered the episode. "The prisoners not only sang for us, they gave us a huge cheer and I… I just burst into tears," he said, his eyes reddening again at the recollection. "That was where the sense really took hold in me that I belonged to the new South Africa, and where I really got a sense of the responsibility of my position as a Springbok. There I was, hearing the applause for me, and at the same time thinking about Mandela's cell and how he spent twenty-seven years in prison and came out with love and friendship. All that washed over me, that huge realization, and the tears just rolled down my face."" This wonderful book describes Mandela's methodical, improbable and brilliant campaign to reconcile resentful blacks and fearful whites around a sporting event, a game of rugby."
-The New York Times Book Review
" If you have any doubts about the political genius of Nelson Mandela, read John Carlin's engrossing book . . . [A] feel-good slice of history."
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