MANDELA UNITES A NATION by Karen Bond
South Africa had been a divided nation for decades under the apartheid regime, but thanks to the determination of one hugely popular man the whole country came together to unite behind the Springboks on their Rugby World Cup debut on home soil in 1995.
The first tournament to be staged in one country came alive as the whole of South Africa was swept along in rugby fever, buying into the ‘one team, one nation’ slogan as the Springboks opened with a 27-18 victory over holders Australia in Cape Town.
Francois Pienaar, captain of that Springbok side, certainly has never forgotten being swept along by the public excitement that had gripped the Rainbow Nations after the dream World Cup debut for the host nation.
“I was going to meet my fiancée and sister in law in the waterfront for a quiet meal, but in South Africa we don’t do things quietly if we have just beaten the favourites to win the Rugby World Cup!” recalled Pienaar.
“So as I approached the waterfront, some people spotted me and there was a crowd that gathered round and I got carried on their shoulders to where my now wife was sitting waiting for me! It was embarrassing actually.”
Uniting a nation
However if Pienaar was surprised by the outpouring of emotion among the public, the flanker should not have been, given they had been inspired by one man who had suffered in the apartheid regime, but now lead the new South Africa.
That man was, of course, President Nelson Mandela, someone that Pienaar and his fellow Springboks were to meet on more than one occasion during Rugby World Cup 1995, each visit by the frail 76-year-old leaving the team inspired by his mere presence.
“Before the opening match he came to our training sessions at Silvermines in Cape Town to say hi, flew in by helicopter and greeted everyone,” Pienaar told Total Rugby. “We call it Madiba Magic, he has got magic, he’s got such an aura. I was so blown away by his humility.”
Pienaar wasn’t the only one to feel the Madiba Magic on the eve of the World Cup final with New Zealand in Johannesburg, scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen has certainly never forgotten the special visitor to their changing room that day.
“There was a lot of stress in the changing room, a lot of emotions … it was dead quiet and suddenly the door opened and there was Nelson Mandela walking in,” remembered van der Westhuizen. “I think the best thing was to see him a Springbok jersey, that was the best thing for us – it was a total surprise.
“Then we realised that the whole country is behind us, and for this man to wear a Springbok jersey was a sign, not just for us, but for the whole of South Africa, that we have to unite, and we have to unite today.”
Pienaar's number is up
Mandela, though, wasn’t simply wearing a Springbok jersey, as Pienaar was to discover when he introduced the South African team to their President on the pitch as tens of thousands of fans chanted his name.
“I never knew he was going to be there, and I never ever thought in my life that he would wear a Springbok jumper. And he just stood there, and he had this aura. He just said good luck, that’s all he said.
“Then he turned around and there was this number six on his back and that was me! I was just so emotional, I couldn’t sing the anthem, I was just too emotional and too proud.”
However it wasn’t only the Springboks that were affected by Mandela wearing a jersey that had for so long been a symbol of what was perceived as a white man’s sport in South Africa, the same could be true for the All Blacks that famous day at Ellis Park.
“To see him walking into the stadium with Francois’ jersey on, and to hear 72,000 people start chanting Mandela, Mandela … then there’s 15 of us there looking, thinking ‘God, how are we ever going to beat these buggers!” admitted captain Sean Fitzpatrick.
Anything is possible
Even Jonah Lomu, the Player of the Tournament who had single-handedly destroyed England in the semi final, was beginning to have his doubts that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t going to be New Zealand’s day.
“Firstly you get intimidated shaking Nelson Mandela’s hand and he’s wearing a Springbok jersey, it felt like the pressure was all on us because they had Nelson Mandela on their side, they had their country finally united after years of fighting … that one day they all came together.”
For the record the two sides gave everything they could out on the pitch and were locked together after normal time with fly halves Joel Stransky and Andrew Mehrtens kicking the points for the Springboks and All Blacks respectively.
Something special would be needed to break the deadlock before the watching Mandela, which duly came from Joel Stransky’s drop goal seven minutes from time, a kick which was the catalyst for the outpouring of joy and relief across South Africa.
The sight of Mandela handing over the trophy to Pienaar became one of the defining images of the 20th Century, the culmination of a dream tournament for South Africa and one none of the players involved will ever forget.
“Seeing Nelson Mandela, when Francois lifted the trophy and think about what that guy did for this country, and now suddenly we did something for this country. It’s quite a lesson for everybody, that we can do things together,” revealed van der Westhuizen..