South Africa

The boxer who KO'd apartheid

2013-12-07 11:14
Nelson Mandela (AFP)

Johannesburg - A boxer in his youth, avid fan of Bafana Bafana national football team and in later years the Springboks, for Nelson Mandela sport was not only a leisure but a weapon to be used to crush apartheid and unite South Africans into a "rainbow" nation.

Former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, who led South Africa to their 1995 triumph and was handed the trophy by Mandela, paid tribute to the country's first black president.

"Nelson Mandela was the most extraordinary and incredible human being, not only because he united his country when such a task seemed impossible but also because, through his unique humanity, he inspired hundreds of millions of people across the globe," said Pienaar.

"It was my great fortune and privilege to receive the Webb Ellis Cup from Madiba at the conclusion of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, creating what has become an iconic image of national success, unity and reconciliation that resonates with all South Africans.

"I will always be profoundly grateful for the personal role Nelson Mandela has played in my life, as my President and my example."

Sport played an important role throughout Mandela's life.

In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom" Mandela describes how during his years in a small cell on Robben Island he kept fit with a strict boxing routine.

But he also used sport to create a bond with his jailors.

"He knew that it (rugby) was something the wardens (in Robben Island) would always talk about and make a personal relationship possible and he set about learning everything he could about the game, all the gossip and bits of pieces," one of his former wardens Christon Brand told The Telegraph in 2009.

"That's how we started talking. It was a way of connecting in a world when you are not meant to connect. He would never claim to be any sort of expert - he was a boxing man - but he came to know more than enough to get by."

Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison to help negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa. He later became the country's first black president.

In 1995, as South Africa struggled to shake off its apartheid past, Mandela, elected president the previous year, understood more than anyone the advantages of his country hosting the rugby union World Cup.

The tale inspired a book and Hollywood blockbuster with Clint Eastwood's film 'Invictus' based around the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 World Cup.

One gesture above others demonstrated how Mandela used sport for political gain.

Just before kick-off in the final against New Zealand, Mandela appeared wearing the Springbok jersey, symbol of the white Afrikaner community, and greeted the players watched by some 62,000, mostly white fans.

"We had no idea that it was going to happen like that. When Nelson Mandela appeared wearing a Springbok jersey the crowd literally exploded. It was the most amazing experience that I ever experienced in a rugby stadium," All Blacks coach Laurie Mains told AFP a few months before Mandela's death.

Even Jonah Lomu, the impressive New Zealand winger, admitted that he had trouble focussing on the game after the experience in Ellis Park stadium.

"It was as if all the pressure was on us because they had Nelson Mandela with them," said Lomu.

After South Africa won 15-12, a dream ending to their hosting of a first major event as a democracy, Mandela handed the World Cup trophy to captain Pienaar.

But in addition to the political motivations, Mandela was a sports lover at heart.

Before he took up the fight against apartheid in his youth Mandela practised boxing, stating in his biography, "In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant".

He had the ability to roll with the punches, while thinking that he would later win the fight.

"He made us realize that we are all our brother's keeper and that our brothers come in all colours," said American boxing legend Muhammed Ali.

"What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge," Ali said in his statement released by the Ali Center. "He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. He is now forever free"

In 2004, South Africa and Mandela, once again made world headlines thanks to sport.

'Madiba' was no longer president, but the ageing icon of the fight against apartheid played his role in helping his country win the right to host the 2010 football World Cup final.

In mourning following the death of his great-granddaugher, Mandela did not attend the opening ceremony.

But despite ill-health he made a brief appearance at the closing ceremony on July 11, 2010, which was to be his final public appearance at a major televised event.

Read more on:    nelson mandela
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