Nelson Mandela and the Springboks: Rugby played for higher stakes

Nelson Mandela poses with South Africa Rugby Union Coach Jake White, left, and captain John Smit after the Springboks won the 2007 World Cup over England.
(Gallo Images / Getty Images)

The following is a first-person report originally published in The Times on Dec. 15, 2009, under the headline: A game played for high stakes. The secondary headline read: A reporter remembers when Nelson Mandela united a young nation behind a rugby team.

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times

When President Nelson Mandela strode onto the field at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup wearing the shirt of the largely white national team, the entire stadium appeared to catch its breath.

To millions of black South Africans, the green shirt with its springbok emblem had come to embody all the pain and indignities of decades of white rule.


But with that one gesture, Mandela reassured the sport’s largely white fans, many of whom had thought of him as a terrorist, that they too had a place in the new South Africa. A chant rose from the stands, difficult to make out at first, then filling the stadium: “Nelson. Nelson. Nelson.”

Of all the improbable images I carry in my head from covering those first heady days of South Africa’s new democracy for the Associated Press, this one stands out. The film “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood and based on a book by journalist John Carlin called “Playing the Enemy,” captures this extraordinary moment when history really was made on a sports field.

Watching those euphoric scenes in the film, when South Africans of all races poured into the streets to celebrate the Springbok national rugby team’s eventual triumph over the New Zealand All Blacks, it would be easy to believe that this was, as the book suggests, “the game that made a nation.” Yet 15 years later, the country remains in many ways racially divided.

Impoverished blacks continue to live packed into third-world townships on the edge of modern cities, where the best neighborhoods are mostly white. Many of them now complain that too much time has been spent allaying white fears and too little reversing the injustices of white rule.

Three years after the historic game, Mandela ordered an investigation into allegations that rugby bosses were excluding black and mixed-race players from the sport. There was only one member of the 1995 team who was not white. The next time the Springboks won a World Cup (the event is held every four years) in 2007, there were two.


Many Afrikaaners also look back on the promise of the 1995 tournament with some bitterness. They complain their language is disappearing and they are increasingly excluded from jobs they were once guaranteed because of their ethnicity.

Still, it is worth remembering what was achieved in those early days of democracy -- and how perilously close the country came to civil war.


Less than a decade before that, when my parents moved to South Africa to work at the U.S. Embassy, then President P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency and sent the army into the townships to quell a growing uprising.

Education was segregated, so my parents enrolled me in a multiracial boarding school in neighboring Swaziland. From my South African classmates, I heard about white soldiers armed with guns facing off against stone-throwing black youths and a beloved big brother arrested in a schoolyard. His tortured body was returned to the family in a coffin.

The townships seethed with anger. But there was no hint of that in the tidy white Pretoria suburb where my parents lived. Here, when neighbors gathered for beers and a barbecue, no one was interested in discussing “politics.” The conversation inevitably turned to rugby.

The sport is the passion of white South Africa, particularly Afrikaans speakers, whose leaders were the architects of apartheid, the draconian system of laws that was the basis of white domination. Of all the actions taken to fight apartheid, the one that stung the most was the sports boycott, which prevented the Springboks from competing on an international stage.


When Mandela embraced the Springboks after his release from 27 years of prison, and agreed to host the World Cup in South Africa, it was an inspired and risky gesture of reconciliation. Just how risky is shown in the film, when Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is booed at a Springboks game by belligerent white fans, waiving the old national flag. The few black spectators are there only to cheer the opposing side.

To make matters worse, few gave the Springboks any hope of winning. When a skeptical aid asks Mandela in the film why he is prepared to risk his political capital for rugby, he explains that whites still control the land, wealth and armed forces -- everything they need to upset the fragile new order.

Indeed, in the weeks before Mandela was elected president in 1994, white extremists planted several bombs, which killed 21 people and injured scores more. And in the armed forces, there were rumblings of a coup.

The film shows how Mandela joined forces with team captain Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon) to drum up support for the players and inspire them to greatness under the slogan “One team, one nation.” Others also played key roles, notably team manager Morne du Plessis, who I figured out is portrayed only by reading the cast list.


At the time, I wasn’t very interested in the World Cup. Like many of my school friends, I had never bothered to learn the rules. But as the Springboks defeated one fearsome rival after the next, I too was swept up in the excitement and started watching the games on TV. By the time Mandela walked out onto the field to shake the players’ hands before the final, the townships were full of people wearing the same green shirt as the president.

A good start

Some South African actors have complained that they should be allowed to star in their own stories. South Africans take on many of the film’s other roles. But when Mandela was asked at a news conference to promote his 1994 autobiography “A Long Walk to Freedom” who he would like to play him in a movie, he said Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s attempt at a South African accent made me wince a few times. (Damon is more convincing.) But in the end, that hardly mattered. Everything else is there -- the slow cadence of his voice, the stiffness of his gate, his commanding presence and deep loneliness, even as he melted friends and enemies with his charm.


The sheen has rubbed off of that young democracy. And South Africa is still a long way from overcoming its racist past. But as Mandela says in the film, “The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.”