April 17, 2014
Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Inevitable to write about Mandela

By Frankie Deges
Rugby column

With the game starting its post-season analysis, it is inevitable to write about Nelson Mandela, who died last week. A man for all ages, the former Nobel Prize winner found in rugby a good vehicle to work on making a better South Africa. And this, eventually, became a strong message of peace and unity for all mankind.
Mandela, as all the coloured population in his native South Africa, suffered the unacceptable and deplorable Apartheid policy in which they lost most of their basic rights for some four decades. A lawyer by trade, he became an opposition leader that desperately tried to force a rethink in a policy that attacked common sense.
When words were insufficient, he was found guilty of acts of terrorism and sent to prison for life, eventually, spending 27 years in custody. In the seventies and eighties the world, finally caught up with what was happening in South Africa and Mandela suddenly emerged as the big leader of this unfair fight against white oppression.
The international support for the cause grew to the extent that changes had to come; Mandela and many other political prisoners were released. Back in the public spotlight rather than paying back with the same coin and sending his country into a deeper social crisis, the leader opted to work hard to reconstruct a colour-blind and peaceful South Africa.
It was certainly not an easy task and despite his age, he was elected national president in 1994 — a landslide win. A year later, 1995, South Africa hosted the third Rugby World Cup, the first time the Springboks would actually play in it. Rugby and the Springboks represented to many the old Apartheid ways. There were strong political stances aimed to see the team at least lose the name they’d had since 1906. Mandela opposed this course of action and worked hard to convince those who wanted to scrap the Springboks.
With a country on the verge of civil unrest, the start of that unforgettable World Cup saw Mandela walk onto the hallowed green of Newlands Stadium in the opening ceremony to be welcomed by the spectators — most of them white — chanting his name: Nelson, Nelson, Nelson... He wasn’t seen in a rugby related occasion during the rest of the tournament until the final. Strategy or luck, it is hard to tell, but it worked.
On the eve of the final against bitter rivals New Zealand, Mandela had to convince, again, a huge polity rally that they all had to support the Springboks as they represented the whole of the country; the Rainbow Nation depended on everyone’s input.
He took the Ellis Park field dressed in the Springboks green jersey, a clear gesture for the world to see. Whilst wearing national colours is a common thing in various countries, in his case, it was a statement, approved by a bastion of white domination. His team won: Mandela presenting Springbok captain François Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup is the game’s most iconic photograph.
In that moment, in that place and given the circumstances, Mandela managed to convince his country that they could live in peace and harmony.
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