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Nelson Mandela:The Sports Nation Builder 

By Basil K. Mbuye — Nelson Mandela through South Africa proved that sports have the power to unite people and change the world. Although other political leaders around the globe have an idea of the potentials of sports in uniting people, none has enjoyed a simple but genuine grip of the nation-building potential of sports like Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela used rugby, football and sports in general to reconcile the 50 years torn   apartheid nation. He once said that: “Sports has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” 

It was, of course, spoken with a mind of a legal guru and a true leader’s sense of optimism as seen today. His sports unifying philosophy goes from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Cup of Nations , the 2003 Cricket World Cup, and  the 2010 FIFA World Cup that  were all played in South Africa.

Mandela the Boxer

In 1950s, he was a dedicated amateur boxer. Mandela would run two hours before dawn from Soweto to Johannesburg and back, before going to work. In prison, he continued his love for boxing by doing push-ups and abdominal exercises with fanatical persistence. This is believed to be what gave Mandela the superb shape to achieve his most heroic accomplishments when he was well into his 70s and living to 94.

Mandela and Football

After the success of the Springboks in 1995, Mandela will turn his attention to the king sport that was dominating the world of sports in order to use it to bring his people together. South Africa that is one of the co-founder of the African Nations Cup was reinstated back into the tourney after decades of suspension as a result of apartheid.

The 1996 Nations Cup saw South Africa hosting the tourney and emerging champs. The 1996 African Nations Cup was more than just a football tournament, as Nelson Mandela once again came out in the captain’s jersey to hand over the trophy to the Bafana Bafana team. Throughout the tournament, Mandela could be seen donning the number 9 jersey in all the Bafana Bafana games. During this tourney, Mandela realized his objective again. This is attested by Mark Fish who was part of the team that won the tournament.

"It was the highlight of my football career – not winning the trophy, but seeing how people came together and united behind Bafana Bafana," says Fish. "The way the country got behind us was absolutely phenomenal." Before, these people would know the rugby team, but after 1996 – with Mandela supporting the team – they knew who we were. Mandela was also the main crusader for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He was able to bring South Africans together as both whites and blacks could be seen rallying behind the Bafana Bafana.

Although he could not make it for the opening day of the Tourney as a result of the dead of his grand daughter, he did appear in the stadium at the final game. It was his last major public engagement. Mandela and the people said “Ke nako,” meaning “It’s time.” It   means it was African’s time and also time for the blacks and whites to live as one in South Africa. The then frail but spirited Mandela ended his parting speech by saying “We did it.”

Using Rugby To Unite South Africans

A year after he was elected President, Mandela through his wisdom used the Springboks to unite his people. Blacks in South Africa used to support visiting teams when they play against South Africa.

However, Mandela was able to convince his black compatriots to make the Springboks team their own, even though there was only one nonwhite player on the 15-man list. He persuaded the players to learn the new national anthem (previously a song of black protest) and to reach out to the black population. Also, Mandela persuaded the newly black-dominated South African Sports Committee to support the Springboks. 

 During the World Cup, The Springboks emerged champs for the first time after beating New Zealand 15-12. Mandela ices the final when he went out onto the field, before a crowd of 65,000 mostly whites, wearing the green Springbok jersey. Things turn more interesting when Mandela walked onto the field to give the trophy to South Africa’s captain; François Pienaar , the two embraced in a natural gesture of racial reconciliation that softened hearts around the country. The whole country, black and white, jubilated into the night, united for the first time in its history around one cause.

Mandela’s dream was finally attained as South Africans now lived today as one colour “rainbow” not as white or black. Mandela truly understood the political impact sports could have. This is seen as he was able to rebuild a broken, apartheid-torn South Africa, using what he called the power of sports to help bond his people. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, 1996 African Nations Cup, 2010 World Cup among others will forever be cast as the vital picture of sport overcoming apartheid. 

First published in The post print edition no 01486

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