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Nelson Mandela and the Use of Rugby as a Unifying Symbol in South Africa

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Years after the fall of the evil apartheid regime in South Africa, the country was able to stage a national event that signaled a new narrative for African unity.

Of course, many people might not be familiar with this event and what it represents. Let’s give you some background on this historic moment.

South Africa defeated New Zealand 15-12 in the final to win the Rugby World Cup on June 24, 1995 at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium.

The game represents a crucial turning point in South African history. Since the fall of the racist apartheid rule in 1991, it was the country’s first big athletic event.

Using the phrase “One Team, One Country,” President Nelson Mandela arranged a display of unity in one of the most viciously divided countries in the world. This was a masterful feat of statecraft carried out in full view of the world.

The production of the images turned out to be much simpler than the situation’s actuality.

South Africa was long considered a pariah nation due to the egregious human rights violations caused by apartheid. A UN resolution from 1973 referred to apartheid as a “crime against humanity.”

The nation was prohibited from competing in the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1992, and its rugby squad was excluded from the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.

The historically white squad, along with their green and gold colors and their Springbok mascot, had come to represent the country’s oppressive minority white rule to Black South Africans.

Rugby was viewed by President Mandela as a way of encouraging a sense of common South African pride and bridging the race gap in that country. Previously, the nation’s rival colonial armies had found common ground in the sport.

Players from both sides of the bloody Boer War (1899–1902) between the English and Afrikaners were proudly represented on a 1906 Springbok tour to the British Isles, including one player who had been held in a British concentration camp.

Nelson Mandela, who had served 27 years in prison for opposing the system of apartheid run by white minorities, had to first recognize and deal with the tremendous suffering and division that apartheid had caused before he could begin to heal the wounds this time.

The Link Between Rugby and Apartheid in History

Although racial segregation had been practiced for a while in South Africa, the official apartheid system first appeared in 1948, following the party’s parliamentary victory.

Afrikaners, who viewed themselves as a chosen race and were descended from Dutch, German, and French settlers, fought to create a government that supported the white majority.

Under apartheid, the majority Black population was relocated to segregated townships where they lived in abject poverty and were forbidden access to employment other than those requiring unskilled labor.

They were also barred from participating in national politics. All public spaces in South Africa—including the rugby field—are now legally segregated according to the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which was implemented in 1953.

The rugby team, which had played with an all-white lineup for its first 90 years, had strong ties to the Afrikaner National Party. Players occasionally utilized the team as a stepping stone into party posts as the party accepted the team’s success as its own.

According to Simon Pinsky in an essay that appeared in South African History Online, “The National Party envisioned the Springbok symbol [a native antelope] as a representative of the ideals and traits of the Afrikaner people.”

Also read: The History Of Central African Republic

They believed that allowing Black athletes to wear the revered shirt would lead to the demise of these principles. For the staunch Afrikaner, the Springbok had come to represent more than just rugby prowess; it had also come to represent racial superiority.

Truth, Reconciliation and Rugby

Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to look into crimes related to apartheid, five years after he was released from jail and a year after becoming the first Black president of the country.

The commission hoped that by telling the whole truth about the horrors committed during that time, the country’s racial divisions would be reconciled.

The apartheid regime’s emblems had to be destroyed, according to black South Africans. The Springbok, who had served as the rugby team’s mascot since 1906 and the National Party of apartheid’s sports emblem, was at the top of the list.

All South African national teams, with the exception of the rugby team, selected a protea, the nation’s national flower, as their badge following the first free elections in 1994.

Mandela Pursues a Greater Objective

Mandela sought a settlement tactic to allow Afrikaners to maintain their beloved insignia in order to achieve his goal of uniting the country after realizing this reluctance to change.

Mandela started learning Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who established apartheid, in the 1960s, according to Richard Stengel’s 2008 Time magazine article on Mandela’s 90th birthday.

His ANC [African National Congress] friends mocked him about it, but he wanted to grasp the Afrikaners’ worldview; he knew that one day he would be fighting them or negotiating with them, and either way, his fate was intertwined to theirs,” the author writes.

He described his ideal of a “rainbow nation at peace with itself” in his inaugural address in 1994.

So, at the start of his first term, he requested a meeting with the Springboks’ captain Francois Pienaar to discuss how the team could serve as a peacemaker between the Black and white communities.

Pienaar was up in an Afrikaner neighborhood where the words “terrorist” and “bad man” were used to describe Mandela. I implore you to stick behind [these lads] because they are our type, Mandela addressed to a Black gathering.

Black activists oppose Nelson Mandela

Black South Africans still struggling with the oppressive and violent legacy of the fiercely racist apartheid system didn’t take kindly to Mandela’s reconciliation efforts.

Only during the Soweto uprisings of 1976 did police kill hundreds of Black people and hurt thousands more.

Militant Black organizations criticized Mandela after his victory in 1994 because they thought his ruling African National Congress party was too accommodating of the previous apartheid state.

His estranged wife Winnie Mandela was one of his most outspoken detractors because she thought he prioritized pleasing whites over protecting the rights of Black South Africans.

While listening to these critics, Mandela and the ANC remained committed to ensuring the white minority that they wished to forge a close working partnership.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup Finals

A largely white crowd of 63,000 people at Ellis Park chanted along as the Springboks lead a new national anthem prior to the 1995 World Cup Finals match versus New Zealand.

It incorporated lyrics from “Die Stem,” the anti-apartheid movement’s anti-apartheid anthem, and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” an anti-apartheid movement hymn of pan-African independence. The predominantly Afrikaner crowd chanted “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!” when Mandela entered the stadium wearing the Springbok green.

The event served as a showcase for Mandela’s efforts in the weeks leading up to the matches, preparing the world for a historic—and primarily symbolic—show of racial harmony within the nation.

In a competitive game between archrivals, the two teams knotted 9-9 at the end of regulation. Joel Stransky’s drop goal with seven minutes left in overtime gave the South African squad a 15-12 triumph.

Martin Meredith described the celebration as “the whole of South Africa burst in celebration, Blacks as jubilant as the whites” in his biography of Mandela.

Never before has Black people had reason to be so proud of their white countrymen’s achievements. Mandela had contributed much to that time of national unity.

The Complicated Legacy of a Moment of Symbolic Unity

When Mandela passed away years later, team captain Pienaar remarked, “When the final whistle rang, this country changed forever.

While most Black South Africans, who still suffered at the bottom of society in the post-apartheid era, may have found this to be a grotesque exaggeration, it showed Mandela’s skillful attempt to utilize rugby to mend the nation’s wounds.

Many Black South Africans still associate the Springboks with a harsh apartheid system. The team had just one Black player in the 1995 games and only six in 2019, the year it defeated England to win the World Cup under the leadership of Siya Kolisi, its first Black captain.

According to journalist David Smith in a 2015 Guardian column, “just as Mandela’s gesture in 1995 was hailed as a metaphor for racial reconciliation in the nation, so rugby’s failure to transform is seen as a metaphor for disillusionment among Black people who gained political but not economic freedom.”

Nevertheless, Mandela’s efforts to use rugby to unite a new nation attempting to mend its old wounds became one of his defining accomplishments as president of South Africa—and a testament to what could be accomplished for good via the influence of sport.

“Sports has the capacity to change the world,” declared Nelson Mandela in 2000 at the Laureus World Sports Awards. Sports may instil optimism where there was once just dejection.

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