For the rugby players and fans of rugby football in our community, there is another compelling story related to the late Nelson Mandela. While soccer was a sport embraced by the black South African population, for most of the 20th century rugby was the sport of choice for white South Africans, so much so that very many blacks, rugby was a symbol of the racism and oppression of Apartheid. As much as anybody else, Nelson Mandela changed that. Mandela understood the importance of rugby to white South African culture. As he struggled to lead South Africa through the transition from Apartheid, Mandela understood that rugby might be a key factor in garnering support from the white community and perhaps even help step closer to the dream of a racially united “rainbow nation.” As South Africa prepared to host the 1995 World Cup of Rugby, Mandela became the Sprinboks’ number one fan. That the Boks went on to win the World Cup was the storybook ending. It was a truly memorable scene to witness Mandela, clad in his Springboks uniform, once a symbol of Apartheid, handing the Webb Ellis Cup to the Boks’ Captain, Francois Piennar.
To learn more about this fascinating intersection between sport, politics, culture and history, check out the following:
“Invictus,” a film (2009) by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Springboks’ Captain Francois Piennar. Based on Playing the Enemy.
“The 16th Man,” an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary produced by Morgan Freeman.