How Rugby Built a New Nation in South Africa

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

As a general rule, Americans don’t play rugby.  We are too litigious of a nation to allow grown men to bash into each other without being covered head to toe in protective gear. (Consequently, rugby playing nations think American football is for pansies.) So when I lived in South Africa, it was determined by newly found friends the need to educate me in the finer points of the game. This, of course, occurred over many pints of beer as they screamed at the television. Maybe American football and rugby aren’t so different after all…

Anyway, part of my education concerned explaining the importance of the 1995 World Cup. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected black African president of the Republic of South Africa. A new constitution was instituted. A new country was emerging. None of this was an easy transition, however-there was resentment, fear, anger, uncertainty, vengeance, forgiveness all wrapped up in confusing welter of emotion. But South Africa hosted the rugby World Cup that year and because of its host status automatically fielded a team in the competition. Despite long odds, South Africa won. This fragile, new State won the rugby World Cup!

Without fail, everyone who shared with me their version of this story-where they were and who they were with-had tears in their eyes or streaming down their face, despite ten intervening years, as they described the moment when Nelson Mandela walked on the field to present the trophy and the national anthem was played. People described entire bars standing on their chairs singing at the top of their lungs. One woman said she was jumping up and down on her bed and fell off, breaking her arm. Everyone stated that this was the moment South Africa became a new nation.

Invictus, the story of this defining moment, opens today in the US. This powerful film made me miss my friends in South Africa and the beauty of their stories about the promise of a new nation. It didn’t make me miss rugby. Despite all the beer and everyone’s best efforts, I just never really got into it.

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23 thoughts on “How Rugby Built a New Nation in South Africa

  1. Great post, Sarah! I arrived in South Africa on the heels of the rugby world cup victory in January of '96. Everyone talked about the significance of the victory, but, just as importantly, they mentioned the way Nelson Mandela embraced the team and wore the Springbok colors. Shortly thereafter, Bafana Bafana–the South African national soccer team–won the African Cup of Nations on home soil. Quite an incredible sweep for a young nation emerging from apartheid. It seemed like it was destiny. It was truly magical time in S. Africa: apartheid was defeated, Nelson Mandela was president, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was traveling the country collecting testimony from victims and perpetrators alike. It still inspires me, and I'll never forget it.

  2. Hi Hayden-
    I went into this movie a little nervously because if done poorly it could have trivialized such an important time in South Africa's history. And I was a little worried about the accents after suffering through DiCaprio's assault on the ears in Blood Diamond. But the movie does a really good job of showing how Mandela worked so hard to bring people together and how important it was to him to unite a nation. Kudos to Mr. Eastwood.

    South Africa has been heralded as such a shining star, people tend to forget it is only 15 years since apartheid ended. It took the US nearly 300 years to get most things right and we still spectacularly screw it up on a frequent basis. So while I worry about such things as South Africa falling into the liberation party trap of "you are for the liberation party or you are against the entire nation" that has befallen so many of its neighbors, and the lack of leadership on appropriate messages about violence against women, and the slow pace of some vital economic reforms that can be done as policy changes without necessarily spending more money, etc etc etc. On the other hand, they legalized gay marriage, the new policies on combating HIV/AIDS are a fantastic step in the right direction and I loved every second of my time there with some of the warmest, most engaging people I have known in my life.

    So go see the movie Hayden. I don't think you will be disappointed. And the accents don't suck!

    Sarah

  3. Great post, Sarah! I arrived in South Africa on the heels of the rugby world cup victory in January of ’96. Everyone talked about the significance of the victory, but, just as importantly, they mentioned the way Nelson Mandela embraced the team and wore the Springbok colors. Shortly thereafter, Bafana Bafana–the South African national soccer team–won the African Cup of Nations on home soil. Quite an incredible sweep for a young nation emerging from apartheid. It seemed like it was destiny. It was truly magical time in S. Africa: apartheid was defeated, Nelson Mandela was president, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was traveling the country collecting testimony from victims and perpetrators alike. It still inspires me, and I’ll never forget it.

  4. Hi Hayden-
    I went into this movie a little nervously because if done poorly it could have trivialized such an important time in South Africa’s history. And I was a little worried about the accents after suffering through DiCaprio’s assault on the ears in Blood Diamond. But the movie does a really good job of showing how Mandela worked so hard to bring people together and how important it was to him to unite a nation. Kudos to Mr. Eastwood.

    South Africa has been heralded as such a shining star, people tend to forget it is only 15 years since apartheid ended. It took the US nearly 300 years to get most things right and we still spectacularly screw it up on a frequent basis. So while I worry about such things as South Africa falling into the liberation party trap of “you are for the liberation party or you are against the entire nation” that has befallen so many of its neighbors, and the lack of leadership on appropriate messages about violence against women, and the slow pace of some vital economic reforms that can be done as policy changes without necessarily spending more money, etc etc etc. On the other hand, they legalized gay marriage, the new policies on combating HIV/AIDS are a fantastic step in the right direction and I loved every second of my time there with some of the warmest, most engaging people I have known in my life.

    So go see the movie Hayden. I don’t think you will be disappointed. And the accents don’t suck!

    Sarah

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  6. Dear Sarah,

    How rugby built the "new" "Nation" of "S Africa" ?

    Is this how the new history of "S Africa" will be written ?

    Postcolonial nationalism ushered in by a colonial game ?

    And according to this myth/idyllic history coscripted by Hayden, apartheid has been defeated ?

    Not only is apartheid not gone, it's already back & thriving in its reincarnation of presentday white "S afrikan" racism, — & it's harder to attack this time because of its invisibility.

    Harder to hit because of its affability, its smiling face.

    Harder to hit because apartheid now smoothly uses the language of multiculturalism & liberalism to disguise itself.

    Harder to hit because the whites have let in a Black government while they themselves continue to dominate the economy.

    Mandela may have walked onto the rugby field to mark the "victory", but he has walked away from unfinished business — the Black Revolution of S Africa.

    For rugby won't free the Blacks.

    Rugby won't deliver them from grinding poverty, subjugation & subservience, a state of chronic powerlessness bequeathed by centuries of entrenched settler imperialism.

    And when the real, unfinished Black Revolution returns, it will be aimed at the same white ruling classes, & the Africans protecting that system.

    And their accents will then be the least of their worries.

  7. Dear Sarah,

    How rugby built the “new” “Nation” of “S Africa” ?

    Is this how the new history of “S Africa” will be written ?

    Postcolonial nationalism ushered in by a colonial game ?

    And according to this myth/idyllic history coscripted by Hayden, apartheid has been defeated ?

    Not only is apartheid not gone, it’s already back & thriving in its reincarnation of presentday white “S afrikan” racism, — & it’s harder to attack this time because of its invisibility.

    Harder to hit because of its affability, its smiling face.

    Harder to hit because apartheid now smoothly uses the language of multiculturalism & liberalism to disguise itself.

    Harder to hit because the whites have let in a Black government while they themselves continue to dominate the economy.

    Mandela may have walked onto the rugby field to mark the “victory”, but he has walked away from unfinished business — the Black Revolution of S Africa.

    For rugby won’t free the Blacks.

    Rugby won’t deliver them from grinding poverty, subjugation & subservience, a state of chronic powerlessness bequeathed by centuries of entrenched settler imperialism.

    And when the real, unfinished Black Revolution returns, it will be aimed at the same white ruling classes, & the Africans protecting that system.

    And their accents will then be the least of their worries.

  8. Hi Art-

    I did not say rugby built "THE" new nation of South Africa. To do so would trivialize a wondrously long history. I say that it helped build "A" new nation. And it did. I do not once in my posting allude to rugby solving all the problems South Africa was facing in 1995. Nor do I say that it has solved its problems since then. I also never discount the power of the TRC for allowing the beginning of the healing necessary for SA to move forward on its path.

    What it did was stop the country from going up in continuing flames of hatred. In the same way people can come together to defeat a common enemy, people can come together in a shared moment of glory and pride. When SA won, the people who cheered were not white and black-they were SOUTH AFRICAN. Everyone I became friends with told me their World Cup story-white and black-with the same amount of pride. That is immeasurably valuable and should not be discounted.

    You say Mandela walked away as if that was giving up and copping out. He set an example of appropriate transfer of power and since he left that office, has arguably done more since to continue to set an example of statesmanship, dignity, grace, activism and humanity.

    You use words like "revolution," which imply violence and discord. How about the example set by WOZA of leading an evolution? It has only been a little over 15 years since apartheid ended. The disgraces of the former ruling elite devasted generations of black South Africans. Through no fault of their own, most were uneducated and unprepared to take on the mantles necessary. Now there is a new generation rising up prepared to do what is necessary to be leaders in their country. But they have risen up in a country that has done its best to continue the example set by the commonality of nationalism inspired by the World Cup win. That is the legacy of 1995. I would recommend you not shrug it off so dismissively.

    Sarah

  9. Hi Art-

    I did not say rugby built “THE” new nation of South Africa. To do so would trivialize a wondrously long history. I say that it helped build “A” new nation. And it did. I do not once in my posting allude to rugby solving all the problems South Africa was facing in 1995. Nor do I say that it has solved its problems since then. I also never discount the power of the TRC for allowing the beginning of the healing necessary for SA to move forward on its path.

    What it did was stop the country from going up in continuing flames of hatred. In the same way people can come together to defeat a common enemy, people can come together in a shared moment of glory and pride. When SA won, the people who cheered were not white and black-they were SOUTH AFRICAN. Everyone I became friends with told me their World Cup story-white and black-with the same amount of pride. That is immeasurably valuable and should not be discounted.

    You say Mandela walked away as if that was giving up and copping out. He set an example of appropriate transfer of power and since he left that office, has arguably done more since to continue to set an example of statesmanship, dignity, grace, activism and humanity.

    You use words like “revolution,” which imply violence and discord. How about the example set by WOZA of leading an evolution? It has only been a little over 15 years since apartheid ended. The disgraces of the former ruling elite devasted generations of black South Africans. Through no fault of their own, most were uneducated and unprepared to take on the mantles necessary. Now there is a new generation rising up prepared to do what is necessary to be leaders in their country. But they have risen up in a country that has done its best to continue the example set by the commonality of nationalism inspired by the World Cup win. That is the legacy of 1995. I would recommend you not shrug it off so dismissively.

    Sarah

  10. I play rugby. My South African friends have told me that South Africa is certainly a different place, but it's not the love, peace and rainbow harmony that this article or the movie suggests. The blacks are now letting the whites have it by way of revenge. Racism right back again, only in reverse.

    But that's not the politically correct story, is it?

    It is, however, human nature.

  11. I play rugby. My South African friends have told me that South Africa is certainly a different place, but it’s not the love, peace and rainbow harmony that this article or the movie suggests. The blacks are now letting the whites have it by way of revenge. Racism right back again, only in reverse.

    But that’s not the politically correct story, is it?

    It is, however, human nature.

  12. Hi Brigham-

    I'm glad you read the posting and commented, but I do beg to differ that neither the blog nor the movie paint South Africa as "love, peace and rainbow harmony." Under discussion is a moment in time 15 years ago when South Africa was on the cusp and had two directions it could turn: towards violence, chaos, disunity and civil war or towards tolerance and peace no matter how grudging or tenuous.

    Yes, South Africa is a violent place where 1 in 4 men admit to having committed a sexual assualt and the levels of violence against persons of every racial identity are too unacceptably high. However, South Africa never became a Sri Lanka, or an Angola, or a former Yugoslavia. It has become the diplomatic and economic powerhouse of the region and part of the G20.

    Neither I nor Amnesty International sugar coats things. We have called South Africa to account for many issues occuring there. But I will give credit where credit is due. And credit is due to Mandela for seizing the moment, to South Africans for their courage to forgive and unite and to this movie for telling the story well and not getting all goopy in the process.

    As Nelson Mandela has said-"No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

    Sarah

  13. Dear Sarah,

    Mandela's not addressing the real historical issues.Not talking of them, not giving ideas, not doing much historically, far's i'm aware. He should've been. The other leaders are no better.

    They're not with the people now.

    art

  14. Dismissive of the power transfer, Sarah ?

    How could i dismiss something achieved at such cost by the Black people's struggles ?

    On the contrary, it's because i respect & prize the victrory over apartheid ( not a decisive victory, but a major one nonetheless ) so highly that i don't want it stopped midway, incomplete, but continued through struggle to the next & higher & deeper levels of people's sovereignty & dignity.

    Not to do that would be worse than dismissive towards it.

    It would be to fail it.

  15. Hi Brigham-

    I’m glad you read the posting and commented, but I do beg to differ that neither the blog nor the movie paint South Africa as “love, peace and rainbow harmony.” Under discussion is a moment in time 15 years ago when South Africa was on the cusp and had two directions it could turn: towards violence, chaos, disunity and civil war or towards tolerance and peace no matter how grudging or tenuous.

    Yes, South Africa is a violent place where 1 in 4 men admit to having committed a sexual assualt and the levels of violence against persons of every racial identity are too unacceptably high. However, South Africa never became a Sri Lanka, or an Angola, or a former Yugoslavia. It has become the diplomatic and economic powerhouse of the region and part of the G20.

    Neither I nor Amnesty International sugar coats things. We have called South Africa to account for many issues occuring there. But I will give credit where credit is due. And credit is due to Mandela for seizing the moment, to South Africans for their courage to forgive and unite and to this movie for telling the story well and not getting all goopy in the process.

    As Nelson Mandela has said-”No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

    Sarah

  16. Dear Sarah,

    Mandela’s not addressing the real historical issues.Not talking of them, not giving ideas, not doing much historically, far’s i’m aware. He should’ve been. The other leaders are no better.

    They’re not with the people now.

    art

  17. Dismissive of the power transfer, Sarah ?

    How could i dismiss something achieved at such cost by the Black people’s struggles ?

    On the contrary, it’s because i respect & prize the victrory over apartheid ( not a decisive victory, but a major one nonetheless ) so highly that i don’t want it stopped midway, incomplete, but continued through struggle to the next & higher & deeper levels of people’s sovereignty & dignity.

    Not to do that would be worse than dismissive towards it.

    It would be to fail it.

  18. Hi Art-

    You have two comments posted above but they both can be addressed with the same answer.

    By transfer of power, I do not mean the change of power between minority rule to majority rule. The fact that this transition was done with relatively minor discord deserves applause. But by transfer of power I was referring to Mandela walking away after one term, a complete aberration among his compatriots. dos Santos, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Bongo, etc etc all demonstrate how unique and rare this decision was and how important an example he set.

    So I was calling into question what seemed to be a feeling on your part that Mandela walked away leaving a job undone rather than acknowledging the job he continued to complete by serving as an example of grace, dignity and activism.

    But once again, despite a circular path, we have reached consensus in that I also do not want the victory over apartheid to be stopped half way. Which is why I do things like spending 2.5 hours with the SA Ambassador addressing the long list of concerns Amnesty International has regarding health issues for women in South Africa, among others. I don't think Nhlapo would have invited me back, but luckily there is a new ambassador I can go corner in his office. :)

    Sarah

  19. Hi Art-

    You have two comments posted above but they both can be addressed with the same answer.

    By transfer of power, I do not mean the change of power between minority rule to majority rule. The fact that this transition was done with relatively minor discord deserves applause. But by transfer of power I was referring to Mandela walking away after one term, a complete aberration among his compatriots. dos Santos, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Bongo, etc etc all demonstrate how unique and rare this decision was and how important an example he set.

    So I was calling into question what seemed to be a feeling on your part that Mandela walked away leaving a job undone rather than acknowledging the job he continued to complete by serving as an example of grace, dignity and activism.

    But once again, despite a circular path, we have reached consensus in that I also do not want the victory over apartheid to be stopped half way. Which is why I do things like spending 2.5 hours with the SA Ambassador addressing the long list of concerns Amnesty International has regarding health issues for women in South Africa, among others. I don’t think Nhlapo would have invited me back, but luckily there is a new ambassador I can go corner in his office. :)

    Sarah

  20. Patient & persistent Sarah, my friend,

    Whenever you speak specifically, you're at your finest.

    These are the real things you do, more effective than anything i've ever done — the long hours you give trying to make real issues heard at the embassy.

    i've faith in these unglamorous, mundane, but solid, efforts of yours.

    Whenever you've time, do tell me, even in bits & pieces, of your efforts as well as your experiences, so i can learn how to approach real issues & think on them , work on them. Every little bit of the real is worth gleaning & meditating on. Even the smallest bit, if recorded in the telling, will not be lost, believe me. In fact, i'm a gleaner of the smallest bits, Sarah, they tell me more than do the "chunks", dear friend.

    In Oneness,
    Art

    • Hi Art-
      While I appreciate your perception that I am at my finest when I speak of the specific, the nature of blogging requires me to converse as a generalist to reach the broadest audience. But please continue to ask questions about my posts and ask me to be narrow and specific in comments. I always enjoy geeking out on international issues.
      Sarah

  21. Patient & persistent Sarah, my friend,

    Whenever you speak specifically, you’re at your finest.

    These are the real things you do, more effective than anything i’ve ever done — the long hours you give trying to make real issues heard at the embassy.

    i’ve faith in these unglamorous, mundane, but solid, efforts of yours.

    Whenever you’ve time, do tell me, even in bits & pieces, of your efforts as well as your experiences, so i can learn how to approach real issues & think on them , work on them. Every little bit of the real is worth gleaning & meditating on. Even the smallest bit, if recorded in the telling, will not be lost, believe me. In fact, i’m a gleaner of the smallest bits, Sarah, they tell me more than do the “chunks”, dear friend.

    In Oneness,
    Art

    • Hi Art-
      While I appreciate your perception that I am at my finest when I speak of the specific, the nature of blogging requires me to converse as a generalist to reach the broadest audience. But please continue to ask questions about my posts and ask me to be narrow and specific in comments. I always enjoy geeking out on international issues.
      Sarah