Pienaar recalls Madiba's smile
Nelson Mandela hands Francois Pienaar the 1995 RWC trophy (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Their friendship helped forge a new country, the white rugby player and the black president who came to represent South Africa's racial reconciliation.
Former Springboks captain Francois Pienaar remembered Nelson Mandela in a television interview broadcast Sunday, hours after the anti-apartheid leader was laid to rest in a state funeral in his rural homeland in the country's Eastern Cape.
His lasting recollections of Mandela, Pienaar said, were the former president's smile after South Africa's famous victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, and Mandela's distinctive "booming voice" when they first met.
"(He) made me feel so comfortable, wanted to know who I am, really, really cared about me as a person," Pienaar said.
While South Africa's emotional farewell to Mandela reached a climax as he was buried, the handshake between the two men after the Springboks' triumph over New Zealand nearly two decades ago is enshrined as a lasting image of South Africa's newfound unity just a year after the dismantling of apartheid and the first all-race elections that installed Mandela as president.
"It was so nice afterward to see his smile when he celebrated with us after I had the privilege to lift the cup," Pienaar recalled on South Africa's weekly Carte Blanche program. "And for the first time in our country's very fragile, very young democracy we were world champions. We were all winners."
Mandela died Dec. 5 aged 95 and Pienaar has spoken little publicly since then of the intimate moments he shared with the president that led to that defining moment.
Mandela's role as South Africa's unifier, the peacemaker who led his country from the brink of race war to the inclusive "Rainbow Nation," was perfectly illustrated by his decision to back the Springboks in 1995, a team formerly all-white and closely associated with the previous racist government. The freedom fighter and political prisoner's willingness to also bond with Pienaar, the blond-haired Afrikaans captain, told South Africans of all races that they should come together.
Dressed in his green and gold Springboks blazer, Pienaar spoke in the interview of their very first meeting in the weeks before the rugby tournament, when the player was invited to Mandela's presidential office.
"Why? Why does he want to see me and then what will I say?" Pienaar remembered thinking of Mandela's call. "So I had no clue what the conversation was going to be about. When I was sitting outside his office ... He heard that I was there and he walked out and he was walking toward me. He's a big man. Strong man. I was taken by his size.
"(He) shook my hand and then immediately spoke Afrikaans. Our conversation for the next hour was predominantly in Afrikaans. He shared some wonderful stories about his village, about him, about Robben Island, about sport and about apartheid. And we had this hour-long conversation having tea. I've said this many times. After that meeting I was taken by how genuine a person he is."
Mandela's biggest surprise was wearing one of Pienaar's jerseys to the final, an act that cemented his support for the Springboks, won over rugby-loving whites and changed the attitudes of black South Africans toward a team they previously hated as an extension of apartheid.
"The (dressing room) door opened and in walked Mr. Mandela and he had worn a Springbok jersey and he just said 'Good luck,' and he turned around and my number was on his back and that was me," Pienaar said.
"I was so emotional I couldn't sing the anthem ... I could not sing the anthem because I would just start crying."