World Rugby Hall of Fame Inductee No. 120 - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013)
The former South Africa president was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame at the South Africa v Scotland match at St James' Park in Newcastle on 3 October, 2015.
Nelson Mandela may never have played rugby – boxing was his sporting passion – but his impact on the sport is immeasurable.
Mandela’s determination to put 27 years of captivity behind him and extend the hand of friendship to all South Africans, regardless of race, was no better symbolised than the moment he handed over the Webb Ellis Cup to the Springbok’s Rugby World Cup 1995-winning captain, Francois Pienaar, wearing a Springbok jersey and cap: a moment that has since been immortalised by the Hollywood blockbuster, Invictus.
What the crowd didn’t hear was the immortal words Mandela said to Pienaar on the dais as he handed him the Cup: “Francois, thank you for what you have done for our country.”
To which Pienaar replied: “No, Mr. President, thank you for what you have done for our country.”
This symbolic moment sent out a message to the world that the past was exactly that and also reinforced the value that rugby has a vehicle for bringing people together.
In the eyes of many South Africans the Springbok emblem was a hated symbol of the apartheid regime that Mandela worked so tirelessly to overthrow. It personified the racial divide between the ruling minority and the majority.
Yet this benevolent act at RWC 1995, and the generosity of spirit Mandela continued to display throughout his five-year term as South Africa’s leader, made him the perfect role model for a reborn nation still finding its feet.
What many people didn’t realise was that Mandela’s role supporting the team began weeks earlier when he met them privately at Silvermine in Cape Town, to give them his personal backing and encouragement.
“1995 was the start of the theme that sport has the power to change the world,” recalls South Africa’s team manager Morne du Plessis.
“If you think back on it, it changed our country. It had a lasting effect on how people could use sport to value each other and to come to understand each other a little bit better.
“(It’s) now a legend, it’s become a film, it’s spoken around the world as one of the true miracle stories in sport and in the country. The fact that rugby can be such a powerful initiator of social change.”
The team’s only non-white player, winger Chester Williams, recalls how Mandela’s support brought the country behind the team.
“At the start some people would ask me what I was doing there (in the team).” he says. “Call me racial names. Thankfully Nelson Mandela supported us, standing behind the team, visiting us at training sessions. Always asking us ‘Where’s Chester?’
“And then the final, we all know what the history is. We won 15-12 after 100 minutes against the All Blacks. That day I could see it was the birth of the rainbow nation.”
Even the opposing captain, All Blacks hooker Sean Fitzpatrick, paid tribute to the crucial role Mandela played.
“It was the greatest World Cup I ever went to or played at, because it was just amazing,” says Fitzpatrick.
“In that final week the whole country got behind the Springbok team and it was us against 50 million people. As soon as the great Nelson Mandela said ‘One Team, One Country’ they had the full support of everyone in South Africa and we noticed that.
“To be in that environment, to see the crowd. For me the underlying memory was Mandela walking on to the stadium at Ellis Park wearing that jersey of Francois’ and listening to the crowd chanting his name.”
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