Mandela’s birthday a reminder of his special bond with rugby

18 Jul 2013
Mandela’s birthday a reminder of his special bond with rugby

Many thought it was a strange thing when more and more whites were gamely trying their renditions of the Shosholoza, a song now popularised in many different formats which have little resemblance to the original Zimbabwean Ndebele folk piece sung in mines.  At the same time, black South Africa began supporting what was their rugby team, and such scenes, which reached their mighty peak at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, were among the drivers for a man whose belief and purpose was already legendary.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the Madiba and South Africa’s Tata (literally Father), was in some sense the country’s first real Public Relations Minister, and the opportunity he saw in the third Rugby World Cup was driven to unite a country who were still divided by the colour of their peoples’ skin.

Mandela, whose first passion was boxing, was rarely allowed to train properly in his youth, as only one specific skin colour could use the gyms in that era.

Often such attitudes can lead to violence through desire for revenge, and here the Madiba provides his greatest lesson of them all.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.

—William Ernest Henley

The last paragraph of that famous poem, part of the movie Invictus, tells us that revenge is an easy path to walk (strait the gate), and that often, when pain is inflicted upon you by other people, many thoughts of revenge can surface (charged with punishments the scroll).

After nearly three decades at Robben Island, Mandela, who was said to have drawn strength from the poem, emerged having learned that nothing was going to be achieved by thoughts of hatred, thoughts of revenge.


Mandela saw that his only path, not merely to eventually uniting a nation but surviving imprisonment, was to treat all with an amount of beauty and humility that has defined the man, and he knew his jailors, white supporters of the mighty Springboks, wouldn’t react to him with the typical cold expected of such, powerless to the charms of this animated and spritely man with his shock of white hair who spoke and jumped with animation talking about props and scrums.

Rugby of course, was unfortunately a poster child for the sporting trouble of South Africa over apartheid, with the 1995 Rugby World Cup the first edition the nation had competed in, even though complete touring bans due to government stances and sanctions didn’t stop Rugby’s pulse in South Africa from continuing.

These tours, illegal and formally unrecognised by most unions, became rife to the point where some sides were renamed, with the Cavalier All Blacks among the most famous example.

Even being invited back into the global sporting arena, the mere hosting of what was already the biggest rugby tournament in the world didn’t just unite South Africa with a click of its fingers, but Mandela did see the power that it would involve, remembering that as President he could have easily have denied the country the right to bid for the Rugby World Cup – and history has recorded the 1992 awarding of the rights as an act of generosity by the Madiba towards what was still a white sport.

During the tournament he connected with the white players, and the new national anthem was another part of the greater strategy to lay the final foundations for transformation that has created a multiracial democracy that now among the most complete and open minded constitution in the United Nations.

At 95 today some wonder how after such energy has been expended that he has been reported to be sitting up and smiling, watching TV in his bed in hospital as he fights down yet another opponent, although as always never a fist is raised, never the voice striking a higher chord.

The calmness in the man is belied by his resources of energy, infamous for waking fellow prisoners for a run around the yard, to following a routine in his smaller cell to ensure his lithe frame, hardened by his love of boxing and joy for life, remained fit and strong.

That frame, dwarfed by a green Springbok jersey when he walked out to a crowd of 65,000 at the Rugby World Cup Final, without exhaustion and with the ultimate definition of humility, helped forge a nation.

To South Africa’s Tata, who will always look over the rainbow nation as their very proud Father, Happy Birthday.