New film revives memories of Mandela's rugby moment

By Charlotte Plantive

Morgan Freeman (pictured) stars as Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood's new film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup  Invictus . Photo / Supplied
Morgan Freeman (pictured) stars as Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood's new film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup Invictus . Photo / Supplied

JOHANNESBURG - When South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup just after apartheid, the new president Nelson Mandela donned a jersey and won over a sceptical white population in a symbol of unity for the young democracy.

South Africa will relive that iconic moment this week as the new Clint Eastwood film Invictus premieres in Johannesburg today, conjuring memories made all the more poignant ahead of the football World Cup here next year.

"At first we could not believe it when we saw him," recalled former rugby player John Allan, who was in Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium for the final against New Zealand on June 24, 1995.

"All the crowd was silent and then... the whole crowd virtually erupted en masse," he said.

By wearing the jersey and walking on the field, Mandela strode into a sport beloved by Afrikaners, descendants of the first European settlers who institutionalised a violent racial segregation and imprisoned Mandela for decades.

"It was the greatest thing he could do," said Steven Roos, operations manager at Rugby SA, who was also in the stadium at the time.

"At that point in time, we (the whites) knew about Nelson Mandela as an ANC member, and the ANC (African National Congress) was a terrorist group," he said.

A onetime leader of the outlawed ANC's armed wing, Mandela had been a free man for only five years - and president for only one year - at the time of the 1995 rugby victory, after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid. He was released in 1990 committed to democracy and negotiating a deal that led to universal suffrage and the country's first black head of state, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

"After the apartheid years and the elections, the (white) people were very sceptical. They stocked up food because, 'Now that the blacks were going to take over, there will be no food anymore'," he said, voicing the fears of the time.

But then Mandela emerged smiling, wishing good luck to a team whose only non-white member was the mixed-race winger Chester Williams. On the president's back was emblazoned an enormous 6, number of the Springboks captain François Pienaar.

"I could not believe it. The people shouted Nelson, Nelson!" Roos said.

Now that moment is remembered as a dignified gesture of national unity, but the opinion wasn't so unified back then.

"At the time we were still trying to negotiate issues" in writing a new constitution, said Strike Thokoane, secretary general of the Africanist party Azapo.

He said Mandela wearing the jersey "was premature. That was viewed as surrendering ourselves."

In hindsight, analyst Aubrey Matshiqi of the Centre for Policy Studies said the euphoria of the rugby World Cup overshadowed the inequalities that remain in South Africa.

"Because he became the symbol of reconciliation, it masked the reality of the lack of reconciliation among South Africans," Matshiqi said.

"There is a perception that it is almost always the black person that has extended the hand of reconciliation," he said. "To some extent, white people embraced Mandela but not the race from which he came."

The 43 per cent of the population living in poverty remains almost all black. Until the daily lives of South Africa's people improve, and until whites are seen reciprocating the goodwill shown by Mandela - now 91 and retired from public life - the country will struggle for "a common sense of belonging," Matshiqi added.

Allan said that especially in the world of rugby, not enough was done to erase the colour line after the World Cup victory.

"They had the opportunity to transform the game, but they did not do much," he said, noting that the winning World Cup team in 2007 remained almost all white.

"Sport is the best tool to bring people together irrespective of races, religion," Allan said. "On the playing field, everyone is equal. You share a common goal."

That sense of shared purpose will likely re-emerge during the football World Cup next year, Matshiqi said. "But beyond that euphoria, you will see very few signs of reconciliation," he added.


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