Sport can be a real global game-changer – Pienaar
Published 05/04/2014 | 02:30
Few in South Africa are better placed to speak of the progression of the country over the past 20 years than the World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar.
The rugby star was indelibly linked with Nelson Mandela after that monumental day in June 1995, when South Africa demonstrated to the world that the wheels of change were finally turning, another example of sport breaking down social barriers.
For Pienaar (47), it represented the sporting highlight in an international career that lasted just three years, but the greater significance of the occasion was not lost on the flanker.
"I realised something special was happening at the time, but I couldn't really understand the role the rugby team played in 1995," he says.
The blond-haired totem of an Afrikaans rugby community grew up in Apartheid South Africa, and would famously hold aloft the World Cup trophy with South Africa's first black president.
Mandela's decision to don a jersey with Pienaar's number added to the memorable occasion and represented one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century.
"It's impossible to describe to anybody in words," admits Pienaar, who was in Dublin to launch the One Young World Summit, which will be held across the city in October.
"This wise man took a symbol that was hated by black people in South Africa and he wore it with pride.
"He told the people of South Africa 'these are our boys, they play for us, support them'.
"Twenty years later there is still a glow of what happened that day."
South African rugby hero Francois Pienaar. Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
The extra-time victory over New Zealand in the World Cup Final of 1995 capped a remarkable tournament for the hosts.
They defeated defending champions Australia, unbeaten for nearly two years, and a Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks en route to victory, but, remarkably, the captain has never watched a replay of the dramatic final.
"I don't know why," Pienaar admits.
"One day, and I think the time is coming, we'll take over a theatre, invite all the mates and see who can make it. We'll stack up on some beers and see who can make it and re-live it.
"As you get older, you get more emotional about these things, but the day will come," he said.
The relationship between Mandela and Pienaar ran far deeper than simply professional and political convenience.
The former South African president was godfather to his two sons, Jean and Stephane, and even invited himself to Pienaar's wedding.
Francois Pienaar with Independent.ie's Declan Whooley for video interview
Following his death last December, Pienaar voiced his hopes that Mandela's legacy would "not be wasted" and for others to follow the great man's lead.
His frustrations stem from those who simply pay lip-service to Madiba.
"When people use Mr Mandela's name and they don't follow in his footsteps, that makes me angry," Pienaar said.
"We can't fill his footprints, that just isn't possible, but we can follow them."
"With a strong moral compass and a selfless approach, we can make South Africa and the world a better place."
The next step in that process is the parliamentary election scheduled for May 7, and Pienaar openly concedes it is a crucial time for the country.
"South Africa is at a crossroads. We are a young democracy, people must understand that. We are going to the voting stations and people can vote for the right leaders and effect change.
"That is what Nelson Mandela fought for. He fought for the vote," Pienaar said.
But the legacy of the past 20 years has taken its toll on some of the great South African team of 1995.
Flanker Ruben Kruger, the most talented flanker Pienaar says he has ever played against, succumbed to brain cancer four years ago.
Another key member of the team, scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen is clinging on after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone's Disease in 2011.
"Although his spirit is strong, his body is showing the strain," his former playing colleague reflects.
The two met up recently to share a beer and pore over some of their greatest days together on and off the rugby pitch.
Pienaar cannot think of a better number nine to have graced the game. "He defied the odds with the things he did – even tackling Jonah Lomu. I tried that but I couldn't get there," he recalls with a smile.
Francois Pienaar, One Young World Counsellor is pictured with Bob Coggins, One Young World Dublin Bid Committee member at the unveiling of a mural created by Joe Caslin to launch the One Young World Summit that will take place at the National Convention Centre in Dublin
Pienaar watched with admiration the curtain closing on Brian O'Driscoll's illustrious international career, his viewing tinged with a degree of envy that such a scenario would be most unlikely in his homeland.
"To see the emotion, people gushing out on to the streets, on social media and in the press saying 'thank you' was magnificent."
A relatively short international career – just 29 caps amassed during his three years as a Springbok – denied Pienaar the opportunity of playing against Ireland, though he has his own special memories of playing Munster during his final year as a professional at Saracens.
A passionate South African, Pienaar remains positive about the future of his homeland, and optimistic that the progress of the previous 20 years can be continued for the next two decades and beyond.
Should that come to pass, Pienaar believes it will be a fitting legacy for the country's recently departed spiritual leader.
FRANCOIS PIENAAR WAS IN DUBLIN TO LAUNCH THE ONE YOUNG WORLD SUMMIT 2014, WHICH WILL BE HELD ACROSS DUBLIN FROM OCTOBER 15 TO 19. MORE THAN 2,000 YOUNG DELEGATES FROM MORE THAN 190 COUNTRIES WILL BE IN ATTENDANCE TO DISCUSS A RANGE OF INTERNATIONAL TOPICS.