Friday 21 November 2014

James Lawton: He knew sport was filled with a power to heal and unify

He was at the heart of the celebrations and wearing a team shirtIt was rivetingly appropriate that Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance on the bitterly cold Johannesburg night of the World Cup football final in 2010, writes James Lawton

Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30

He was already half occupying a closed world but the cheers of the great crowd in the brightly coloured stadium fashioned in the shape of an African cooking pot brought a smile to his face.

It was the most touching reminder that if the warrior turned peacemaker knew so well the soil and pain of his land he was also aware of the extraordinary place occupied by sport.

More presciently than any of his contemporaries on either side of the old apartheid line, he had seen that it was one filled with a power to both heal and unify.

This was a vision not so easily shared by anyone who happened to be in another stadium in another part of the city 18 years earlier. This was the old white citadel of Ellis Park, where the Springbok rugby team played their first international after the lifting of a world-wide boycott.

Apartheid, officially, was dead and Mandela was on his way to becoming the father of the Rainbow Nation, but that day at Ellis Park you wouldn't have given much for the chances of a peaceful transition.

The stadium seemed to shake with the passion of the Afrikaans anthem Die Stem. The only black people to be seen, apart from a few officials of the African National Congress, were carrying brushes and cleaning pails. The vast terracing was thick with the old flag and, it seemed, the old defiance as the words of Die Stem boomed out.

"Give to us the strength O Lord

To sustain and to preserve

That the heritage of our Fathers

For our children remain."

Three years later the taxi driver from a township returning you to Ellis Park talked happily of South Africa's chances of winning the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand and he also told you, without prompting, that he would feel part of the triumph.

Astonishing, when you played back those memories of another, more menacing day, Mandela was at the heart of the celebrations and wearing a Springbok team shirt. In places like Soweto and Alexandria you could see kids playing touch rugby, which just a year or two earlier might have seemed like the scenario of a separate planet.

Morgan Freeman, who won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Mandela who had seized on the potential of that sports tournament, came to town for the soccer finals. Over dinner, he said that no professional experience had ever provided a deeper running satisfaction.

"I was born in Memphis, in the old south, and I knew what it was to feel separate from the more privileged side of life. Meeting Nelson Mandela, feeling his strength and seeing the effect of his work, and his simple understanding of the power of something like sport to remind people of what they have in common rather than what keeps them apart, is one of the great bonuses of my life.

"Of course, there is still so much work to do, in this land and my own.

"But what an example he has set, what an understanding of what is most important in this life."

Freeman's forebears were slaves in North Carolina with origins in Niger. He talked of growing up in Mississippi, the crucible of American civil rights, and his family's migration to Gary, Indiana, in search of work. His black maternal great-grandmother was buried beside his white great grandfather in those days when integrated marriage was unlawful. Once Freeman told his interviewer Mike Wallace on the American news show '60 Minutes' that he would not refer to him as a white man if he stopped calling him a black man.

Nor would he take part in something described as Black History Month. "A black American history month would really be a white American history month. We talk too much about race. We need to think more of our humanity.

"That's what Nelson Mandela has done so magnificently and I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have played a small part in transmitting the message he has given to the world."

Freeman also enjoyed the World Cup football and the opportunity to feel the miraculously peaceful growth of the rainbow nation.

Nelson Mandela didn't wear a football shirt when he came to the World Cup final. He was wrapped against the cold night air when he was carried across the field in a buggy. But then the warmth of his smile was statement enough. He had, after all, made his point quite some time earlier. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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