It was nearing midnight on Thursday when the former Springbok captain took the call.
Francois Pienaar had just returned to his hotel from the Wanderers cricket ground in Johannesburg where he had been watching the one-day match between South Africa and India when he was told the news of Mandela’s death.
“I never imagined that I would be so emotional,” said Pienaar, speaking from Cape Town to where he had just flown.
“You think you will be prepared but it turns out you are not. I turned off the phone and switched on my TV and just watched and watched these tributes pouring in from all over the globe. Of course, we knew this day was coming. But it does not make it any easier to take.”
Pienaar will forever be linked with Mandela, framed together in that image from the Ellis Park podium, the shot that went round the world.
“I just wanted to hug him at that moment but did not think it was the thing you did with a head of state,” Pienaar said.
“As we stood there he turned to me and said with that incredible, beautiful smile of his: 'Thank you for what you have done for South Africa.’ I couldn’t believe he had said that. With some people you meet, they are just courteous. Some you meet are politicking. With Madiba, it was always genuine. We had met a year before, in 1994. He had just been elected president and I had just been made Springbok captain. We had tea together.
“That was all. And we just chatted, for an hour, interrupting each other, laughing. That was the way it was.”
Mandela invited himself to Pienaar’s wedding. There was an official reception for the Springbok World Cup-winning team in August 1995 hosted by Mandela.
His first words on being introduced to Pienaar’s fiancee, Nerine Winter, were: “Nerine, would you be offended if I came to your wedding in January?’
The couple remained close to Mandela and years later asked him to be godfather to their two sons, Jean and Stephane.
“It was just Jean at first but Stephane asked why he was not his godfather too,” recalls Pienaar. “I told him it was because he hadn’t got the call. So the little one asked him. Madiba gave out a lovely big laugh, embraced Stephane and later gave him his own name 'Ghora’ which means The Brave One because he had made the phone call. I have had some of the most intimate moments of my life with Madiba. There is a sincerity and openness about him that affected millions. Our relationship was incredible. It grew enormously after 1995.
“That was the start of the journey, not the end. He was a special, special person. I wish I had the words now to give a fitting tribute but I can’t find them, I just can’t.” Sport and politics are rarely at too far a remove in South Africa. There are grandiose claims made on the significance of sport, many of which are hyperbole or wishful thinking. In South Africa in 1995, however, it was clear that the two entities were entwined. Mandela certainly realised that.
As for Pienaar, he had come from a traditional background, the blond-haired totem of an Afrikaans rugby community. Yet he too had reached out in his time, coaching young black kids at Jabulani HS in Soweto in the mid-eighties when he was a law student.
“Mr Mandela was aware of that,” said Pienaar. “Any sportsman has responsibilities. That is compounded for a sportsman growing up in apartheid South Africa as a white person with privileges. It angers me that certain leaders have not followed what Nelson Mandela did. He did what he said he was going to do. He didn’t pay lip service to anyone or anything. I just hope that his legacy is not wasted.”
Pienaar revealed that he has never watched a complete video re-run of that 1995 World Cup final.
“I have had no appetite to do so,” said Pienaar. “I’ll watch it one day with a bunch of mates and family along with a crate of beer. It is so special. The news clips on Thursday night brought back so much. The scenes in the streets of Johannesburg afterwards will live with us all forever.
“There was magic in the air that day. None of us thought it would ever happen. It was like 'Wow,’ then, the next day, 12 months later and even now, 18 years later. I can still see that lovely smile of Mandela’s, how happy he was, how genuinely happy he was, as I lifted the trophy. I have had messages from all round the world in the last 12 hours, from all sorts of people in all sorts of sports and walks of life. They all feel the same way. Nelson Mandela touched everyone, first and foremost, with his warmth.
“But also in a post-apartheid country where there was real tension, he gave us all hope. There will never be another like him.”