As I begin writing I apologise to my non-rugby-following brethren for my emphasis on the game during this blog, but I believe because of its significance, it will pique your interest.
Two days ago was the 20th Anniversary of the infamous victory by the Springbok rugby team over arch rivals and pre-tournament favourites New Zealand All Blacks at Rugby World cup 1995. This epic victory was notable for a number of reasons.
- Nobody, (except perhaps the Coach) gave the Springboks any chance to make even the semis, let alone win!
- New Zealand, as tournament favourites had demolished all in their path on route to the final and the Springboks were huge underdogs, most expected to get whipped.
- Iconic statesman and the newly chosen first Black President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela used the tournament and Springboks deftly to galvanise South Africa as a nation.
- South Africans adopted and proudly owned the phrase used for the team during the tournament “One Team, One nation”
- Sport, along with clever politics certainly be a catalyst for transformation of people.
The months leading up to the Rugby World Cup 1995 were fraught with trouble. The first Black President of South Africa had been in power less than a year, the minority white population lived in fear of retribution after years of White rule during the apartheid era. The Presidents own party, the African National Congress (ANC), were very unhappy at the ‘concessions’ their newly elected President seemed to be giving to the “Whites’ who they felt had “oppressed’ them.
There was also a threat of “political interference’ in the selection of the team from certain quarters. The Springbok team up to that time, was largely chosen from the White players in the country. A few exceptional ‘players of colour’ had made it to top level. Many within the ANC felt the team should be ‘more representative’ of the populace of the country.
All in all, the euphoria within the rugby fraternity in South Africa of having the World Cup in our own backyard, was in danger of being crushed by the political climate in the nation. However one man’s vision and wisdom made this all work to the good of South Africans, the nation and without exaggeration. a big chunk of the world as well.
If you haven’t had the privilege, whether you are a rugby follower or not, I recommend you watch the film Invictus, with main roles played with great aplomb by Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar, Springbok Captain). It is an excellent depiction of what happened during that fateful era as a country. In this blog I’d like to note the main (need a book to mention all) ingredients that made the Sport/Politics ‘cocktail’ work to transform a nation.
- The coach prepared the team, physically, mentally and emotionally only to win the first game against the reigning world champions, Australia. The team on paper, was not as star-studded or skilled as the much vaunted Australians. But the Springboks had ‘tunnel vision’ for this game only and were drilled physically, almost to submission, by the coaching staff.There was no plan B if we lost the first game.
- Mandela had insisted the team retained the Springbok emblem on their jersey. This was a very unpopular decision among many blacks, who saw the Springbok as a symbol of the apartheid regime, but Mandela realised how this decision would win him over the White population.
- The team management insisted the team learn the new National Anthem Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika which for most of the team was a song of “the enemy’ during the war leading up to ‘One Man one vote’ elections in South Africa in 1994. On top of this the team, initially reluctantly, but as the tournament progressed, with vigour, adopted the song Shosholoza, which had, up to then been a traditional Black African song.
- President Mandela invited the Afrikaner Springbok Captain for ‘tea’ at his Office in parliament and wore the Springbok Rugby jersey and cap from the first game when South Africa took on Australia and throughout the tournament. The president used these opportunities to win over the Captain and his team and the rest of the White population of South Africa in a sport that was literally a religion to them.
- The Springbok team visited various townships, teaching kids about the game of rugby. This caused great excitement among the kids, but also impressed doubters who said rugby was a “white sport for the Afrikaners’.
These main ingredients, sprinkled with pinches of others, led to a catalystic final game on the 24th June 1995. The final kick that won the game for South Africa caused pandemonium (in the best possible way) to erupt in the stadium. 63000 fans (less a few All Black supporters) broke out in celebration . The impossible had happened…South Africa beat a rampant All Blacks team in a World Cup final!
When asked at the end of the game by a reporter what He felt about the 63000 South Africans celebrating as they were, Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar aptly and significantly replied…its not 63000 but 43 Million South Africans celebrating! For that moment in time, I believe he was right! I watched the game with my son (who was then 14) in a church hall with hundreds of passionate South Africans. The celebration and joy that erupted was contagious and everybody was hugging whoever happened to be closest to them, no matter what their colour, background or culture.
The massive celebration overflowed into the streets, cities, townships and even villages of South Africa. Scenes of rejoicing, almost disbelief and total surprise overwhelmed the people and pictures of a ‘Rainbow nation’ were evident everywhere. Its a momentous memory I will take to my grave.
And now, exactly 20 years later, that band of brothers got together to reminisce, retell the story and celebrate again, the amazing event that had been almost written as a moment of destiny for our nation. An era that really did see Sport and Politics co-exist for the benefit of our nation. Tomorrow night (Saturday) I will get my copy of Invictus out and watch it again, no doubt with goosebumps, cheers and tears as when I watched it the first time with my son and his Dad in law in 2009.
Band of Brothers, Springboks of 1995, I salute you and thank you for all you did, putting your bodies on the line for your country. Madiba, I salute you for facing criticism, even from your own party, to intertwine the unlikely bed-fellows of sport and politics as you sought a united South Africa.
I pray, as I observe our country today, we may again experience that “Ubuntu” spirit of belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity, that you all so willingly portrayed. Our country needs it as we have strayed so far away from the ideals of a ‘Rainbow Nation” which for that moment 20 years ago, was at peace with itself.
God bless South Africa!