Pienaar recalls Madiba's smile

2013-12-16 09:41
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."


More Boks abroad than in SA

2014-04-20 11:36


Read News24’s Comments Policy publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
Live Video Streaming
Video Highlights
Sport Talk

Live scoring

English Premiership flutter

Take Sport24's "expert" tips at your peril...

Featured Blog

The stock of Bulls and Sharks 2014 Super Rugby jerseys are slowly becoming available after the festive season break, writes blogger Baylion.

Latest blogs

While the Sharks look like sure winners of the SA Super Rugby Conference, the "battle" for the wooden spoon could well develop into a four-team race. Who eventually props up the table?

Twitter Follow Sport24 on Twitter

Newsletters Sign up for the Morning Glory, Super 15 and Soccer newsletters

Blogs Yes your opinion counts. Get it out there

WIN Enter and win with Sport24!

Mobile Sport24 on your mobile phone - WAP, alerts, downloads, services

BlackBerry Stay in the loop on your BlackBerry

iPhone Latest Sport24 news on your iPhone

Facebook "Like" Sport24's Facebook page

TV schedule Plan your couch time with our searchable sport TV guide

RSS Feeds Sport news delivered really simply.

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.