Chennai: Humanity has lost a famous son in the passing away of Nelson Mandela. He ushered South Africa into a democratic path with his conciliatory approach and ability to forgive people who put him in prison for 27 years. Mandela galvanised South Africa with his radiant smile and bewitching charm.
Affectionately called Madiba in reference to his Xhosa clan, he inspired his country -torn by racial tensions -to bury the past and look ahead to the future with optimism. The history of the rainbow nation and Mandela are so closely intertwined that it would be impossible to think either of them in isolation.
Everybody knows the sacrifices Mandela made to keep his boiling nation intact. What many people, however, may not be aware is the Nobel Laureate's shrewd and conscious use of rugby -a sport that is written in the DNA of white Afrikaners and detested by blacks as a symbol of apartheid -to unite a nation that had been bitterly divided on the colour of the skin.
South Africa edged out New Zealand 1512 in a nerve-shredding final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 24, 1995, to lift the rugby World Cup. What was more significant at that point than the plain result was the way Mandela rallied his country behind the Springboks, the popular name of South Africa's rugby team.
Mandela used the World Cup, the first major event to be staged in post-apartheid South Africa, to send out a message to his compatriots that he was determined to win over the white minority and allay their fears.
Rugby, a potent symbol of white supremacy, came in handy to achieve his objective. He wanted everyone to move on. It is to the credit of Mandela's innate goodness that he had retributionseeking blacks and fearful whites on his side by the time the Springboks soaked in the adulations of Ellis Park after slaying the allpowerful team from down under.
It would be an exaggeration to say that a rugby tournament lasting a month's time healed the wounds of 300 years of mistrust and hatred.
But the rugby World Cup certainly helped South Africans of all races realise that their country would work despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. For that, South Africa would be eternally grateful to Mandela. Journalist-writer John Carlin captured the events leading up to the final of the rugby World Cup in his wonderful book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that made a Nation.
Clint Eastwood later transformed Carlin's classic into a highlyacclaimed movie, Invictus. The gripping book is a must-read for those who want to have an understanding of modern South Africa. While sports can't solve poverty, price rise and unemployment, as mass protests in Brazil indicated during the Confederations Cup, it indeed has the ability to bring people together.
Nelson Mandela's rugby knowledge was limited when he launched a charm offensive during the World Cup in 1995. But he knew in his heart of hearts that the time to get down to a scrum was right. The first president of a democratic, multiracial South Africa forged a lasting friendship with Francois Pienaar, a giant of a man and captain of the Springboks. The friendship was built on mutual trust.
Mandela floored the Afrikaner with the sincerity of his approach. Little by little he learned the nuances of the sport. More importantly, Madiba convinced Pienaar and the rest of South Africa that his support for the national rugby team wasn't cosmetic.
Few things symbolised the racial divide in apartheid South Africa more than rugby. Afrikaners adopted the sport as their own. Rugby was predominantly an Afrikaner game as football was blacks'. The white minority resented not being able to play international rugby during the years of apartheid.
When some countries defied the international norm and toured South Africa, the reaction from the rest of Africa was swift and justifiably furious. African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics en masse after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand from the Games for touring South Africa to play rugby .
Many people including his own bodyguards doubted whether Mandela's mission to embrace Afrikaners through rugby would have the effect he envisaged. But the great South African never gave up hope.
Mandela remained steadfast in his belief that the World Cup would become a cornerstone in nation building. Ultimately, though, it was one of his trusted bodyguards who suggested to Mandela that he wear a Springbok jersey for the final. Carlin beautifully describes the transformation of the guard, a former African National Congress activist, from someone who hated rugby with all the venom he could muster to a supporter of the Springboks.
Ellis Park, full of passionate Afrikaners, erupted in joy upon seeing the president in a green-and-gold Springbok jersey bearing six, the squad number of Pienaar, on its back and a matching cap. The stadium reverberated with the sound of Nelson! Nelson! The gesture of Mandela electrified the crowd even before the final had started. The Springboks duly delivered the Cup, beating the All Blacks comprising the great Jonah Lomu.
When it was all over on the pitch, pot-bellied Boers -white farmers who descended from Dutch settlers -cried unabashedly.
The person they hated all their lives had conquered them with love. Mandela's magic wasn't over yet. The symbol of unity and peace got down to the pitch for the presentation ceremony.
After handing over the trophy to Pienaar, Mandela shook the hand of the Springbok skipper. The South African president kept his left hand on the right shoulder of the player in a warm gesture that resembled the meeting of a father with his long-lost son. Not surprisingly, the beautiful picture adorns the cover of Carlin's masterpiece. It's harder to find a more evocative photo in the history of sports.
“Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country,“ Mandela told Pienaar. The overwhelmed captain of the South African rugby team replied: “No, Mr President.
Thank you for what you have done for our country .“