'Mandela gave me back my country'

By Kelly Gregor

Mourners hold aloft a Nelson Mandela flag as they sing and dance to celebrate his life. Photo / AP
Mourners hold aloft a Nelson Mandela flag as they sing and dance to celebrate his life. Photo / AP

I don't really care about rugby, most people find that hard to believe. But generally, I don't care who wins. There is of course one exception to that. And that is the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

At the time, my family and I were living just outside of Amsterdam. I remember it being grey and cold, that Northern European dampness that gets under your skin. And of course, I remember that kick - that kick that changed a nation.

Unlike my family in South Africa, we weren't celebrating in the sun, with our fellow South Africans, who were running through the streets, screaming on top of their lungs, honking horns and hugging one another. We were indoors, a broken mess of adrenalin, hope and sheer amazement. We were in awe. I have never wanted to be home more than I did in that moment.

For us there was an anti-climax to that unification of South Africans, we had no one but each other to celebrate with. The Dutch didn't get it, and now I live in New Zealand, Kiwis don't get it either. That game had nothing and everything to do with rugby.

When we left Johannesburg for Amsterdam, South Africa was a very violent country.

Apartheid was on its way out and South Africa was struggling with how to transform into a democracy, we were buckling under heated international pressure. Mandela had been released and there were massive fractions between the dominant Xhosa and Zulu tribes, there were deep rifts, generations of pain and hurt that divided white, black, Indian and coloured.

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But there was Mandela. He was the one person who brought everyone together, a shining light beating down on a beautiful country, a country on its knees.

As night fell each day in the early 90s, despite the hate and aggression that had been the day, there was a heavy sigh of relief that for another day, a civil war had been averted.

Rugby has always been a white man's sport; it still is considered a white man's sport in South Africa. The Springbok emblem was synonymous with white supremacy, with the far right. It represented oppression, injustice, intolerance and inequality. It also represented bravery, strength, a sense of belonging, it presented an identity. And how do you bring those conflicting ideals together, how do you rebrand something that is so engrained in a country's psyche?

There were many people who weren't happy when Mandela stood behind the Springboks and said they would stay. And miraculously, he managed to bring both black and white together, and that moment when Francois Pienaar held that cup up, that was the moment for me when South Africa started on its path to recovery.

I was 12-years-old. For as long as I can remember, Mandela has been our leader, our hero.

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For as long as I can remember, South Africa has been desperately trying to shed the darkness of its past, the stereotype of brutality, we've been fighting to be heard and to be understood.

There is only one other place in the world where I have felt a kindred spirit with a legacy I had nothing to do with, and that's in Germany, and more specifically in Berlin.

Mandela gave me back my country, it rooted my family back to South Africa.

We moved to Cape Town not long after that kick, that Cup, and that hug between the incarcerated, freedom fighter and the privileged white rugby captain. A moment no one ever thought would happen. And in that moment, for a brief whimsical second, all South Africans were one. Our pain, our shame and our hearts floated away, carefree like the breeze of red dust that blows in the bush.

It was fleeting but all the same it coloured the sky.

For many children who grew up during the end of Apartheid and the beginning of our democracy, we had no control over our lives and where we landed up.

Our parents chose that path. For us, there is nostalgia, an incandescent love, a childhood romance for our country. For us there is no end because we weren't there to see it.

The violence, the crime, the segregation are faint memories spattered against vivid ones of a new flag, a new anthem, a new purpose, a new definition.

We are the new South Africa, we are the generation Mandela talked about. We are the last generation to have straddled between a dictatorship and freedom, and we cheered when those bricks fell down, hard and angry.

They fell down impatiently, in the same way a child opens a present, aggressively, determined.

I don't know what shape South Africa would be in today if Mandela had not lived.

I don't know what would have happened had Mandela not opened his heart, his soul up to the very people who denied him 27 years of his life. Who took him away from his children, from his friends, from his work. Who put him behind bars because he wanted every South African to go to school, to the same school, to be free of beatings, of poverty, of social and civil oppression, to be free to walk down the street as a man.

For all that and more, he spent year upon year behind bars, the epically beautiful Table Mountain and freedom in clear sight. To leave that island with not even the slightest bit of hatred or bitterness in his body, to free a country, defies belief.

My little brother is too young to remember Apartheid.

To him the Springboks do represent the rainbow nation, they represent freedom of speech, democracy, liberty and valour.

Mandela did that.

He changed collective thinking, he changed a perception, he changed a nation. He changed my family.

We have often been called on to defend our country, our heritage, our identity, because of Tata we have always been able to do that with pride.

Nothing any South African does will ever erase the bleakness of our history, the heart ache, the wretched and crazed behaviour.

But we can stand in the light now because of Mandela, because he made that alright when he lifted his Springbok cap to the world.

Whenever I hear the anthem, I get a lump in my throat. I learnt the old one, and now I sing the new one with honour, with my hand on my chest and I will sing it louder and harder now for Mandela.

Hamba kakuhle [go well] Madiba.

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