South Africa’s rugby players, and the nation’s president, do it again. My small role in Nelson Mandela’s embrace of rugby as a means to bring reconciliation to a racially divided country.

4 November 2019 By Paul Martin
A televsion grab of Cyril Ramaposa (centre) alongside victorious Springbok captain Siya Kolisi (left) lifting the Rugby World Cup in Japan .

He was deliberately copying his illustrious predecessor Nelson Mandela, of course, who, at the Ellis Park rugby stadium in 1995, had donned the once-hated (by blacks) Springbok jersey and hugged the victorious white captain Francois Pienaar.

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Mandela with Pienaar, both in Springbok jerseys, after historic victory

As I watched the live broadcast last Saturday, a minority of one alongside a roomful of distressed England fans at my local Totteridge Tennis Club, I could not help feeling proud to have played a tiny role in all this.

My relationship with Mandela, such as it was, began in 1990, just days after his release from 27 years in prison.  Mandela was checking in on the same South African Airways flight as I was, from Cape Town to Johannesburg.  When I spotted him I decided to upgrade myself – so I could try to get close and maybe get a few words with him.

On board I was delighted to see that he and I were the only passengers in Business Class. 

Half an hour into the two-hour flight I plucked up the courage, or the cheek, to walk over to him. “Good morning, Mr. Mandela,” I said, “I’m the journalist who wore that ‘Free Mandela’ T-shirt at your first press conference. My white South African colleagues hated that!  I’ve lived in political exile in London and Cairo for more than a decade and I want to see you succeed.”

He may well have felt unfairly ambushed – but he was surprisingly courteous and polite. “Sit down next to me,” he said, and warmly shook my hand. “And just call me Madiba [his clan name].” 

For the rest of the flight ‘Madiba’ and I discussed only one subject. Not his 27 years in jail, or his future tactics for negotiating with the still-recalcitrant white-dominated government.  We talked about sport, especially boxing.

When I pulled out a photograph from my briefcase – of Mandela as a young boxer in the 1950s – his eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” he enthused. “I remember that day very well. I did not win!” 

He had loved boxing, he said, because it relieved the strains of work as a young black lawyer operating in a profession that, in the 1950s, was almost entirely whites-only. Young Nelson saw boxing at a local Soweto club as a template for the world he dreamed of creating for all South Africans: a society where everyone was equal and treated on his or her merits. 

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“Boxing is egalitarian,” Mandela told me, eyes transfixed by the picture. “When you’re probing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, you’re not thinking about his colour or his social status. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.” 

A very similar quote now appears on a plaque alongside a huge multi-dimensional statue of the great man – his clenched fists raised inside boxing gloves. Modelled on the same photograph, it towers in the street alongside the Johannesburg magistrates’ court where in the bad old days the apartheid law enforcers would jail blacks for breaching pass-laws that made them ‘temporary sojourners’ in their own land. 

But, I pointed out to Madiba on the flight, to white South Africans other sports are much more important than boxing.  “How about rugby?” I suggested.  “Can’t you get to the whites through rugby?  It’s like a religion to them.”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know much about the game and about their top players.  But I agree.  That’s the way to win them over.”

Since that flight from Cape Town in 1990, Mandela from time to time would talk to me and discuss his sporting strategy.  It was to use sport as a political tool, first to make white South Africans feel more willing to relinquish their monopoly of power, and then to build multi-racial national bonds instead of bitterness and resentment. 

In 1990 Mandela told me he was adopting boxing strategy as the ideal training for what was to come: four tough years of tortuous negotiation with the country’s white rulers. “It teaches you when and how to attack and to defend,” he told me.  “And how to pace yourself over what could be a long contest.” 

He had begun using the power of sport even while in prison. During his last months in jail Mandela had authorised his African National Congress to launch the mass demonstrations and disruption that cut short Mike Gatting’s England rebel cricket tour. Yet by then he had already secretly approved clandestine contacts with the “racist” cricket authorities – aimed at forming multi-racial teams and rejecting government sports policies. 

I had become a sporting rebel back in the 1970s. I had incurred the wrath of the white cricket establishment by ‘defecting’ to the anti-apartheid non-white cricket leagues. In an era of segregation, even sharing a dressing-room or an after-match beer was illegal. 

Liaising secretly with the long- banned ANC I was involved, even then, in a form of subversion: trying to bring whites and non-whites together in one cricket body, so undermining the very basis of ‘separate development’. 

Over a decade later, I hosted talks at my London home as we moved towards a potential united cricket deal, tacitly backed by Mandela from his jail-cell.

Hardline politicians and sports administrators on both extremes tried to block us. But everything was superseded by President FW de Klerk’s dramatic announcement (on February 2 1990) that the white government was unbanning the ANC and was about to free Mandela. 

The first major lifting of the blanket ban on international sporting contacts came when, late in 1991, Mandela supported sending the national cricket side, under Clive Rice, on a short visit to India. That was followed months later by an even more historic tour of the West Indies. Till then, neither India nor the West Indies had ever played cricket against racist South Africa. 

Another, much more important breakthrough for South African sport would be its readmission to the Olympic movement. Would Mandela support the idea that, even while there was no overall political settlement in racially-divided South Africa, the still-white-ruled country could send a multi-racial team to the 1992 Olympic Games? 

The idea of South Africa’s flag – which had symbolised white control over the country — fluttering alongside those of its former enemies at the world’s premier sporting event had been anathema for decades to most in the anti-apartheid movement worldwide.

And indeed Mandela faced strong internal dissatisfaction within his party over his bold policy of reconciliation or, as he called it, “nation- building”, through sport. (That type of dissent carried on even after white rule was removed – as the film Invictus accurately portrays.) 

Nevertheless, in 1991 Mandela and a handful of his party’s leadership met a top-level delegation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inside the terminal of a tiny airstrip in the picturesque Eastern Transvaal. (It was chosen because it was so remote and also because Mandela was enjoying a few days’ rest on a private game-ranch nearby.) I was privileged to be there and to film this otherwise secret meeting for a feature report later broadcast on BBC “Sportsnight”. 

When a famous black athlete and IOC delegate, the still-running and still-undefeated American hurdler Ed Moses, tearfully embraced Mandela just before the ANC leader boarded the game-ranch’s helicopter, I realised a deal was close. A multi-racial South African team could be heading to Barcelona the next year. 

Even so, it was touch and go. Or not go. As political tensions in South Africa mounted in 1992, Mandela threatened to block the team’s departure unless faster integration of previously segregated sports bodies took place, and the white regime’s secret police stopped provoking political violence. 

He got his way. Mandela was feted at the 1992 Olympics as guest of honour, while President FW de Klerk was pointedly absent from the guest list. 

As the historic 1994 elections approached, a white extreme-right-wing bombing campaign left more than two dozen dead. But, the hardline right was by now isolated and emasculated – partly at least because the fears of most whites had been assuaged.  They had been won over by the magnanimity of Mandela in general and by his sports policies in particular. Almost miraculously, the violence petered out as election day approached. 

When Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 as the country’s first black president, I was in the VIP area — through a security lapse rather than by invitation! As he walked past, Madiba recognised me, smiled broadly, and said: “Hello Paul. Here I am. We’re boxing clever. And we’re winning – so far!” 

Incidentally, even as president his interest in boxing showed no sign of waning: Mike Tyson gave him signed boxing gloves, which he promptly handed over to his daughter Zindzi – yes, she boxes too. 

Madiba’s unity-through-sport strategy came to full fruition in 1995. More than a year into Mandela’s official rule, only a small proportion of the top players were black.

South Africa was hosting the World Cup, and most of  many of the ANC leadership wanted Mandela to stay away. Yet he chose to do the unthinkable – he donned a green-and-gold Springbok jersey, went onto the field and danced and hugged the no-longer-racist Springbok captain. They jointly lifted the trophy. 

A couple of days later, amid national euphoria, Mandela and I filmed an interview in the sun-drenched garden of his Johannesburg home, in the once whites-only upmarket suburb of Houghton. “Three years ago,” he told me, “if South Africa had played the New Zealanders at rugby, I would have been cheering for the All Blacks.” 

Afterwards, as we packed away our cameras, Mandela lingered, put on his dark glasses, and threw me an imaginary rugby ball. “There you are, Paul. You see. Nation-building. It worked!”  Yes, Madiba, it did. 

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