Parting gift from a man who united his country
A few days before their opening game at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, South Africa's players were given a job that was way beyond their comfort zone.
They were tasked with learning the country's new national anthem. They knew the old one alright: Die Stem was part of their heritage as Afrikaners. Sung in the Afrikaans language, it was the official anthem of the apartheid regime. But a year earlier everything had changed in the host nation. Nelson Mandela had been swept into power on a tidal wave of votes in South Africa's first free and open general election.
As president, Mandela's great and abiding priority was national reconciliation. It was a statesman's vision, but a political strategy of near-impossible complexity.
Large swathes of the black population were thirsty for revenge against the people who had perpetrated what Mandela himself had described as the "moral genocide" of apartheid. Tranches of the white minority, including many personnel from the security forces, had armed and mobilised in preparation for a bloody conflict. The terrifying possibility of civil war loomed large on the horizon.
Mandela's political skills were seemingly bound up in his radiant personal charisma. He defused crisis after crisis with the magic of his empathy and intelligence and warmth.
With the World Cup coming, he saw another opportunity. But rugby as a sport meant little or nothing to black South Africa. As a political symbol, it epitomised everything they despised about the Afrikaner culture of race supremacy. It became another battleground in the struggle between the two sides.
The African National Congress had emerged over decades as the leading resistance movement against apartheid. Arnold Stofile of the ANC knew how much rugby, and sport in general, meant to the white population. It was "the opium of the Boer. We always defined sport as apartheid in tracksuits". It was therefore critical that the regime be denied a platform in global sport. Eventually they got their way – and it hurt the regime badly.
"The ANC's policy of international sports isolation," recalled Niel Barnard, "especially rugby isolation, was very painful to us Afrikaners." Barnard had been head of the government's intelligence service. "Psychologically it was a cruel blow, because rugby was one terrain where we felt as a small nation that we could hold our heads high."
But Mandela had long ago recognised the capacity of sport to unite as well as divide. "Sport has the power to change the world," he'd said. "It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has . . . It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers."
And Mandela knew what he was talking about: the Rugby World Cup was a case in point. He saw in it a chance to promote his great project of unity and nation-building. As ever, he led from the front. Rather than pandering to the well-justified prejudices of the black majority, he persuaded them to embrace it.
On the day of the opening ceremony he wore the traditional green Springbok cap. It was far from a glib gesture in populist politics. One veteran ANC activist explained why, in Playing the Enemy, a book by the journalist John Carlin. "That Springbok emblem those people took such pride in: I hated it. It remained for me a potent and loathsome symbol of apartheid."
But in return, the Springbok players decided to learn the words of the new national anthem. Their manager, Morne du Plessis, a legend from his own playing days, understood the need to reciprocate. And the players, inspired by their meetings with Mandela, readily agreed, even though Nkosi Sikelele had been a protest song at thousands of black rallies long before it became the new anthem.
Kobus Wiese was one of the players involved. "For me, and for just about everyone I knew, that song was synonymous with 'swart gevaar' – the black danger." The song was alien to them at every level. The lyrics were in Xhosa, one of South Africa's ethnic languages that incorporates a range of clicking sounds in its structure. Their version on match day was rough and ready. But, said the player James Small, they realised "that we had to have a true understanding of being a South African in a South Africa that was just one year old."
With Mandela publicly embracing the Springbok symbols and acting as cheerleader-in-chief for the tournament, millions of his people rowed in behind the team. The players would testify that it was he who became the difference in the end between winning and losing. On the day of the final, against New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, he walked onto the field famously wearing the green jersey and cap. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, many of them hardcore Afrikaners. They started chanting his name.
In February 1990, he'd walked free from jail after his 27-year incarceration. The next day he addressed an enormous crowd at a football stadium in Soweto. "That day," writes Carlin, "he was crowned king of black South Africa.
Five years later, his second coronation was taking place at Afrikanerdom's holy of holies, the national rugby stadium."
A friend texted me from Cape Town on Thursday night. South Africa's social and political problems are generating all kinds of crises and divisions. But tonight, he said, the country is united once more, this time in mourning. "It is his final great deed."