Madiba: SA’s best player

2013-12-06 08:52
Australian cricket fans in Adelaide pay tribute to Nelson Mandela on Friday (AFP).
Cape Town - The invitation came to the sports department of my newspaper rather out of the blue: “If you can all be at the University of the Western Cape tomorrow morning, there’s an opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela.”

QUIZ: How well did you know Nelson Mandela?

It was 1991, and that relatively early phase of the global icon’s freedom from 27 years of imprisonment under apartheid rule, when he was travelling far and wide in South Africa in goosepimply meet-the-nation initiatives, his charm rubbing off on folk from all walks of life.

Hasty reshuffling of prior arrangements or not, this was hardly an opportunity to pass up, so I excitedly made my way to UWC, with several colleagues who had also been lucky enough not to draw the short straws dictating which of us would have to remain behind at the coalface of daily journalism.

The occasion was quite literally a “line-up” of Capetonian sportswriters - as if we were the ball-boys and girls at Wimbledon tennis, scuttling into near-military formation for that obligatory, traditional meeting with the Duke and Duchess of Kent on either of the singles finals days.

This Madiba opportunity, quite understandably, adhered to very similar protocols, with time in customary short supply for the great man: brief handshakes were the primary order of the day and every sixth writer or so lucky to have a marginally more extended conversation with the colossus of world history.

I regrettably had to settle for the standard, but still utterly pleasant and sincere “Pleased to meet you” from the quite unrivalled figure of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as he took my slightly twitching hand in his sure own, but they were nevertheless four words to indelibly etch in my memory bank.

Suitably awe-struck, I cannot even remember what I replied by way of acknowledgement before his aides ushered him onward.

Whether my next contributions to sports reportage were of suitably energised standard I cannot recall, but I probably tried to at least make a fist of the challenge for a few days.

Much more importantly, of course, the legendary “Madiba Magic” has often served as a catalyst for unprecedented achievements by South African sportspeople themselves, potentially making the critical difference between dramatic victory and agonising defeat for any of the Bafana Bafana, Springbok or Proteas major national teams, or that extra half-length of fingernail that somehow secures gold from silver by one of our swimmers or athletes.

His lofty standing across the planet may not have had its deepest roots in personal sporting involvement, of course, but what probably appeals greatly to South Africa’s sports standouts is that Mandela was, by all accounts, no slouch as a sportsperson (more specifically, heavyweight boxer) in much earlier life.

And there are enough pictures to prove it: the annals of Drum magazine, for instances, are far from light on images of a broad-shouldered Mandela with fists raised in classic pugilistic fashion ... certainly looking every bit the credible “contender” for a belt.

His autobiography Long Walk to Freedom gives some illuminating insight into his special fascination with boxing, and perhaps serves up associated hints as to why he has always held sport, more broadly, genuinely close to his heart.

“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.

“Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.”  

Sports schedulers, marketers and promoters are hardly going to look a gift horse in the mouth, so the country’s post-isolation sports landscape has been crammed with “Mandela Challenge” or “Mandela Cup” sort of events, and they simply never lose their allure.

The latest brainchild, this “Nelson Mandela Sports Day” - including novel same-bill appearances by the national soccer side against Burkina Faso and the rugby Springboks against Argentina in the Castle Rugby Championship - is a designated, timely honouring of the 95-year-old father figure’s contribution to and influence in South African sport.

It is a heady, multi-layered tale, and I suspect there would be quite widespread concurrence that Mandela’s jaw-dropping appearance on the podium alongside victorious Francois Pienaar after the 1995 World Cup rugby final at Ellis Park ranks as most seismic and meaningful of them all.

After all, the paint on the walls of South Africa’s new democracy was still drying at the time, and not without its awkward or volatile aspects.

Yet when the blond flanker took receipt of the William Webb Ellis Cup after the nerve-jangling, see-sawing triumph over fiercest foes the All Blacks, the sight of then-President Mandela wearing a matching Springbok No 6 shirt as he shared with him the glory of the first-time grab of any significant World Cup by the country, somehow summed up in a minute or two just how far the once bitterly-divided South Africa had come in so short a time.

Many years later, while interviewing him at his golf estate home at some length for a men’s lifestyle magazine - before a roaring fire on a miserable Cape winter day - Pienaar admitted why that day had possibly made him the most privileged captain to hoist a sporting World Cup.

“That moment for me meant so much more than just winning a (ball game), even though that was so huge too ... look, there were many crazy emotions going through me then, yet I couldn’t help feeling like part of some important landmark in a country’s bigger picture.”

Much more recently, in specifically hailing the creation of the Nelson Mandela Sports Day, the now 46-year-old Pienaar was quoted as saying: “(Mandela) asked everyone in this country (at the time) to support the Springboks and embrace them as our team with the slogan ‘one team, one nation’.

“Madiba said profound words: ‘Sport has the power to change the world and it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does’.

“Sport can awaken hope where there previously was despair, and if we look at our young democracy and what sport has done for our nation, it's been incredible.

“But you have to have a leader with the vision of Nelson Mandela, and I am very blessed to have shared a platform with him. I will never forget that beautiful smile on that day and his hands in the air when we won.”

Quite naturally the vivid recollection by millions of South Africans of Mandela’s lucky-charm wearing of the traditional green and gold Bok jersey had them clamouring for him to repeat the trick when the country hosted the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament only a few months later, in early 1996.  

So in February of that year, Mandela duly appeared in a replica of Bafana captain Neil Tovey’s jersey at FNB Stadium.

In the champagne moment of their often erratic two decades or so from a results point of view, post-democracy, South Africa went on to beat Tunisia 2-0 and claim the title, only adding to the sense of joyous pride and achievement around sport as a whole in the country at that particular time.

Tovey, who earned 52 international caps between 1992 and 1997, also joined the more recent appreciation lobby in the lead-up to Nelson Mandela Sports Day, recalling the deflating era of apartheid-induced isolation for our sports stars.

“When I was playing club football (initially for Durban City and AmaZulu before Bafana’s emergence from the wilderness) that was all we could aspire to ... and then suddenly the doors to international sport were open to us,” Tovey said.

“Madiba has created that environment for us to perform and to put South Africa on the international map.”

As with the more complex world of politics, sport in the country is not routinely a matter of all singing and all dancing: Mandela has had personal experiences of that phenomenon.

There was the 1998 commotion when allegations of lingering racism in rugby led to belligerent then-SARU president Louis Luyt being required to appear before a presidential commission of inquiry: he refused and forced President Mandela into court.

A High Court judge initially found in favour of Luyt, but on appeal the Constitutional Court reversed that judgement.

Nor could even the usually unfailing Madiba Magic potion do its trick in that infamous derailment of South Africa’s quest for the 2006 soccer World Cup, which eventually went the way of European powerhouse Germany by a whisker instead.

In FIFA’s final round of voting, and ignoring Oceania’s mandate to back South Africa, their ageing delegate Charlie Dempsey of New Zealand instead inexplicably abstained – an urgent early-morning phone call from Mandela himself had not made a difference.

In a recent interview with the Sunday Times, administrative supremo Irvin Khoza fascinatingly recalled: “He phoned Dempsey at about 1am or 2am. He said ‘I’m Madiba’. Dempsey said ‘Madiba who?’ ‘Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.’ Dempsey said ‘no, I’m sleeping’.”

Fortunately South Africa’s World Cup goose was not fully cooked: they roared back to secure the eventually much-lauded 2010 tournament on a memorable May 14 2004 in Zurich.

Khoza again: “The fear of failing (Mandela) galvanised us. Remember South Africa had lost the 2004 Olympic bid and the 2006 World Cup; we could not give him a hat-trick of heartaches.”

Eternally a trump card at such times, Mandela had been present with the South African bid team when the country’s name was mercifully drawn from the envelope for 2010.

“Watching Mandela holding the trophy back on that day, he knew that his wish, his desire for one South Africa for all through sport, was in action ... he’d also defied his doctors to go and help with the bid,” Khoza revealed.

Mandela himself wonderfully confessed, as the country banked that World Cup: “I feel like a boy of 15 again.”

As much as he has consistently been an energetic presence behind the more “macro” initiatives and campaigns around South African sport and tournaments, Mandela has - typically of his philosophy on life - seldom ignored the slightly more “micro” events and landmarks, either.

Whenever individual sportspeople from our shores have excelled on sometimes very distant ground, for instance, he has made sure they have been aware of his interest and pleasure in their conquests.

Golden girl of swimming Penny Heyns, for example, who in 1999 set six world records in an awesomely productive seven weeks, received a congratulatory call in Los Angeles from Mandela (remember this was three years on from her sparkling achievements at the 1996 Olympics) despite it being a day of understandable personal distraction for him.

She recollects: “He phoned to say how happy he was and to keep up with the good performances - it was his birthday, so I was able to wish him well on the same day.”

Likewise, the poignant achievement of Makhaya Ntini - the former herd-boy from an Eastern Cape village not unlike the Mvezo birthplace of Mandela himself - in reaching 100 Test appearances as a distinguished fast bowler for South Africa against England at Centurion in December 2009, was marked by a letter to the player from the gigantic statesman.

It read: “What you have achieved goes beyond the number of matches you’ve played. You have demonstrated, especially to the youth of our country, that everyone can rise above their circumstance and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.

“We are proud of you!”

Leading South African golf campaigner Ernie Els, a winner of four Major titles and enduringly popular figure at tournaments worldwide, has had reasonably frequent contact with Mandela during his 24-year professional career.

The Big Easy took the opportunity, ahead of Mandela’s 95th birthday recently, to point out: “I just feel he’s been so important for us being where we are today as a nation and as sports people.”  

Madiba: Place-kicker par excellence for our rugby? Midfield dynamo for our soccer? Century-plunderer for our cricket?

Take your pick... I suggest we simply call him irreplaceable.

*This piece was written for SARU’s match-day magazine on August 17, when the Springboks thrashed Argentina 73-13 at FNB Stadium and Bafana earlier beat Burkina Faso on a Nelson Mandela tribute occasion

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