Saturday, December 7, 2013

South Africa: Madiba, Pienaar and that Rugby World Cup.

Voice of America reports

South African Rugby Hero Reflects on Unlikely Friendship with Nelson Mandela

Darren Taylor
On spotting this article hidden away amongst all the tributes to Madiba I must say I was some what astonished that I was reading an American and not a New Zealand news story. That might be an indication of just how much we expected to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, that said New Zealand expects to win every RWC. Fortunately the dateline sort of explains it.

                                                  Francois Pienaar Nelson Mandela RWC 1995

Former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar credits ‘Madiba’ with historic World Cup win and racial reconciliation in South Africa.

There would be absolutely no argument from any New Zealander about the about the latter, call it poor sportsmanship if you like but we Kiwi's tend to credit Suzie with the former achievement.   
Subsequently, various allegations were made surrounding the lead up to the final. Many of the New Zealand players were suffering from food poisoning 48 hours prior to the game, which affected their performance in the final. New Zealand coach Laurie Mains alleged a mysterious waitress known as "Suzie" had deliberately poisoned the All Blacks' water in the week before the final. During the match New Zealand players could be seen throwing up on the sidelines.

It is also worth noting just how utterly revolting the attitude and sportsmanship of the South African Rugby Union was at that time. Mandela arrived not a moment too late for both South Africa and quite probably for the sport of Rugby Union.

However, the after match mood soured considerably during the end of tournament banquet when South Africa's rugby president, Louis Luyt said in his speech that "There were no true world champions in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups because South Africa were not there." This claim that South Africa were the first "true world champions" led the New Zealand team to walk out of the dinner.

The reason South Africa wasn't at those tournaments was quite simply apartheid. The 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand is perhaps a better starting point if one wants to understand the influence of rugby with regard to changing South Africa. You could also argue it was a long overdue starting point for change in New Zealand.

"The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was buoyed by events in New Zealand. Nelson Mandela recalled that when he was in his prison cell on Robben Island and heard that the game in Hamilton had been cancelled, it was as ‘if the sun had come out’."

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup tournament.  It was just a year after the country’s first democratic elections, the first time black people had been allowed to vote after decades of white minority rule.
 But South Africa then was even more deeply divided along racial lines than it is now.  It was also split along sporting lines, with the white minority being passionate followers of rugby, and the black majority worshipping football, otherwise known as soccer. 
The hard truth is that is still a problem today. Incidently Peter De Villiers was the first Black African to coach the springboks.
" In many ways post-apartheid South African rugby views itself as upholding an Afrikaner ethos and values. Any efforts to change South African rugby have to contend with this history.
The former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers knows this very well. Commenting on the SARU plans to introduce a quota system, de Villiers is quoted in the media as saying that the quota system will never work.
As far as de Villiers is concerned, transformation in South African rugby will come about when "there is a transformation period in people's hearts."
Exactly. For that populational transformation in peoples hearts to happen there needs to be real investment in black players and indeed black rugby. It needs to happen in the townships.  
In most parts of black South Africa, the country’s rugby team, the Springboks, was reviled as a symbol of racial oppression.  The Springboks had been funded and adored by successive administrations of the National Party (NP) - the largely Afrikaner political organization that established apartheid in 1948.  
It was a bit surreal having the All Blacks as favourites of the black community in South Africa when they played the Springboks. That thanks to Mandela ( or should that be "thanks Mandela " ) is now to a large degree something of the past.  

But the Springbok captain in 1995, Francois Pienaar, was convinced that winning the Cup could help reconcile black and white South Africans.

The burly blonde Afrikaner wasn’t alone. He found a powerful ally in then-President Nelson Mandela – the revolutionary leader of the African National Congress (ANC) who had been jailed for 27 years by the NP government for fighting against the white supremacist regime.  

Pienaar and Mandela formed an unlikely and dramatic partnership that sustained a nation at a particularly fragile time in South Africa’s often tragic history.

One has to suspect that with Mandela gone the immediate future might well be fragile.

‘Madiba’ embraces the Springboks 

The former Springbok captain recalls Mandela phoning him constantly during the 1995 World Cup, asking after the team’s well-being.  During the competition, the president also appeared on national TV to assure the Springboks of his support.  

Pienaar says Mandela’s backing “meant the world” to him and his team of underdogs.  Rugby pundits had written off their chances of winning the trophy, but the Springboks eventually battled through to the final.  Their opponents were the New Zealand All Blacks, who at the time were the mightiest force in international rugby.  Again, the experts maintained South Africa had no chance of victory. 

New Zealand is always the mightiest force in world rugby. The problem is that no team can win every time it goes onto the field and the All Blacks are no exception to that rule ( 2013 results aside ). The All Blacks just happen to be really bad at world cups, currently us the Aussies and South Africa have two apiece and inexplicably somehow England have one.  I mostly blame the French for New Zealand's failure to dominate this fixture. 

But Mandela disagreed with them, and in the dressing room of the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, a few hours before kickoff, he told Pienaar so.

“Madiba stood there, wearing a Springbok jersey; he had a Springbok badge over his heart.  It was very emotional for me, seeing this man, who had gone through so much, being willing to do this for us,” he recalls.

To this day, Pienaar refers to Mandela affectionately by the liberation hero’s Xhosa clan name, “Madiba.”  Yet the rugby player, like most white South African children of his generation and before, had grown up fearing Mandela as a “terrorist.”  But, in the space of a few weeks, Pienaar and his team containing just a single black player had come to know Mandela as a “symbol of everything that is good in humanity,” and a man willing to wear the green and gold Springbok regalia that had been created by his former oppressors.

I doubt that Mandela would have seen it as beingwilling to wear the green and gold Springbok regalia ", in fact I very much doubt he would have seen it as symbol of apartheid. Mandela I am sure would have viewed it as part of the sporting and cultural inheritance of South Africa and as such, something belonging to all South Africans.   

Triumph for the Rainbow Nation

The ex-captain remembers walking out of the changing room and onto the field, “with the sounds of ‘Madiba!  Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!’” reverberating around the stadium.     

The cheers for Mandela, from a crowd of 65,000 that was almost exclusively white – many who had previously supported his imprisonment – made international headline news.  This moment, when South African whites cheered for the ANC leader as much as they did for their beloved rugby team, would come to be a powerful symbol of a changing South Africa.

That match was about far more than rugby. It was a realisation that a new nation had been born and from a white perspective it was probably relief that they were a part of it. I wonder how white South Africans feel today, particularly when they look north to Zimbabwe ?  

" .....Mr Malema is similar to politicians in Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF party, led by President Robert Mugabe.
"They express conservative views on social issues [for instance, gay rights]. When it comes to economics they use socialist rhetoric but they are, in fact, capitalists who use the state to advance their own political and business interests."
One of his first run-ins with the ANC leadership came in 2010, when he praised Robert Mugabe's seizures of white-owned land."

And when they finally took the field, fired up by Mandela, the Springboks continued this transformation.  In a marathon game often described as one of the greatest ever sporting contests, South Africa narrowly beat New Zealand by 15 points to 12, with virtually the last kick of the game. 

The stereotypical New Zealand response to a defeat is a cliche along the lines of " rugby was the winner on the day " . That day rugby was arguably a spectator, it was South Africa that was the winner.

Critics had called the Springboks “no-hopers,” dismissing any chance the team would do well.  But the no-hopers from the multiracial nation that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had described as “God’s rainbow people” had triumphed.  A proud and smiling Mandela, still clad in his Springbok rugby jersey, strode onto the field to shake Pienaar’s hand and to present the golden World Cup to him.

“When Madiba handed the trophy to me, I shook his hand, and he said to me, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa….’”  Pienaar says he was “dumbstruck” when Mandela, who had almost sacrificed his life so that South Africans could be free of racist domination, thanked him – a “mere white rugby player” – for his contribution to the country.

A bit of false modesty on Pienaar's part I suspect.

‘Leader’ and ‘Brave One’ 

Following the historic victory, Mandela maintained contact with Pienaar – even phoning him to congratulate him on the birth of his first son, Jean.  “Madiba gave him the Xhosa nickname, Nkokele, which means ‘leader.’  He also told me that Jean would be his godchild,” he says.  

A few years later, Mandela invited Pienaar and his family to tea at the former president’s Johannesburg home.  The rugby player’s second son, Stefan, was five years old at the time.  After the boy begged Mandela to also be his godfather, the Nobel Peace Prize winner hugged him, laughed and declared, “I will call you ‘brave one.’”

Pienaar says, “That just goes to show what kind of a person Madiba is, that he always finds time for all people in life, no matter how small they are.  I think absolute humility is his greatest virtue.”

The world is a far poorer place today than it was yesterday.  

In 2007, in France, the Springboks – this time with new captain John Smit at the helm – again reached the World Cup final. In a videotaped message to the team before the game, Mandela urged them to “play the game hard and honestly, and whatever the outcome – hold your heads high. We are convinced that you will triumph and bring the trophy home."

The Springboks indeed emerged victorious, beating England to once again win rugby’s most coveted prize.
Bloody French, took us out in the quarter final.

Pienaar will always be grateful to Mandela for supporting what was then the “white sport” of rugby. But he emphasizes that the freedom fighter should ultimately be remembered more for saving South Africa from what would have been a disastrous civil war.

He says, “Things didn’t go totally wrong in South Africa because we had the most amazing leader, at the right time.”
Sometimes, not often but sometimes everything just falls into place.   
By supporting rugby, Mandela had suddenly and boldly gained the affection of millions of white South Africans. Analysts agree the strategy probably avoided further tragedy in South Africa. They continue to use it as proof of Mandela’s genius.
Genius....maybe but more likely his humanity. The world lost a little bit of its magic yesterday 

RIP Madiba. 

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