It wasn't Nelson Mandela standing by the road as South Africa's nearly all-white national team, the Springboks, embarked on a training run on the eve of the final of rugby's 1995 World Cup, which the toddler democracy was hosting. It was the spirit of the South African leader, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95, that leaped from the curb as those nervous ruggers jogged by. "All you could hear was the sound of running shoes," recalls Fran√ßois Pienaar, the Springboks' captain, whose relationship with Mandela is recounted in the 2009 Oscar-nominated film Invictus. "And then we passed four little black kids selling newspapers. They chased us and ran next to us. They knew our names. They wished us well. Like Madiba."
Madiba, the name of an old chief of the Thembu tribe to which Mandela belonged, is both an honorific and a term of endearment. That Pienaar and countless other white South Africans now use it to refer to Mandela is a testament to his reconciliatory genius. And we'll remember him as a healer in large part because of sports, which stood at the center of his life. Mandela loved the meritocracy of athletic endeavor—how, as he said in a 2000 speech, "[sport] laughs in the face of all types of discrimination." An amateur heavyweight, he adored boxing for the way a round left him drained so he might, as he put it in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "[lose] myself in something that was not the struggle."
But he couldn't have pulled off his great sportscraft-as-statecraft feat, the one Invictus depicts, without cultivating a partner in Pienaar. The first time they met, the two spent an hour talking sports, in Afrikaans. Mandela soon confided in Pienaar his goal of making the Springboks, the passion of South Africa's white minority, a team around which the entire nation could rally. After the ninth-seeded hosts defeated New Zealand for the World Cup title in '95, Mandela sealed the victory's unifying symbolism by pulling on a Springboks jersey for the awards ceremony. As team manager Morné du Plessis put it, "The very game that kept us apart for so long, he used to unite this country."
For his part, Pienaar's life since that victory has been worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize winner with whom he'll always be associated. He picked up a law degree and is now working to reorganize the structure of college athletics in his country. And he continues to cultivate interracial relationships like the one he had with Mandela, who was godfather to one of his sons. Pienaar's Make a Difference Foundation, aka the MAD Charity, culls the country's most destitute precincts for bright children who wouldn't otherwise get an opportunity for a college education. During its 11 years, the MAD Charity has served 2,000 kids, young men and women like Spencer Horne, who found his way from Cape Town to Harvard, where he played the lead in a student production of Othello and is scheduled to graduate next May with an engineering degree. "We're on a journey," Pienaar says of his country. "There is no finish line."
December 16, 2013
Thirteen years before his death, Mandela said, "Sport has the power to change the world.... [It] can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers." Those words may have the whiff of bromide, but nothing less than the recent history of the country where Mandela was born, imprisoned and ultimately elected president bear them out. With the international boycott of South Africa's tennis players and rugby teams, sports weakened the apartheid regime. At the same time, far from the eyes of the world, members of the African National Congress imprisoned on Robben Island established a soccer league, the Makana Football Association, with its own rules and regulations. Mandela, in solitary confinement, couldn't participate, but he took note of how the MFA led these ANC members to take seriously the obligations of self-government. Former players, referees and officials would serve the new South Africa as cabinet ministers, jurists, legislators. Jacob Zuma even became the country's president.
Finally, at the young nation's moment of both greatest vulnerability and opportunity, Mandela and Pienaar trusted each other to cast their lot with a team and a game. The result, Pienaar says, was transformative: "We saw each other differently because of this great moral leader. There was no color. We saw ourselves as champions."
Even if the man who first had that vision died last week, the man who shared it lives on.