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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Remembering Mandela and the Springboks, 19 Years Later

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.

This article was originally published on June 18, 2014. 

On June 24, 1995, South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, faced New Zealand's All Blacks in the final of the Rugby World Cup. South Africa won the grueling match 15-12 in extra time. In South Africa, this was not just a triumph of sport, but a great victory for the South African people and for national unity.
It all started with Nelson Mandela. For 50 years, South Africa was ruled by the venomous policy of apartheid, which separated the white minority from the poor, undereducated black majority. In the 1980s, international sanctions drove South Africa into recession. Racial tensions regularly flared and ended in violence, and the country looked as if it was close to civil war. In 1989, White South Africans elected Klerk president. De Klerk surprised many South Africans in 1990 when he repealed the apartheid laws and released Nelson Mandela from prison. He and Mandela presided over South Africa's transition from apartheid state to multiracial democracy.

Even as South Africa celebrated its freedom in 1994, animosity still smoldered. Radical white South Africans were furious and calling for Mandela's head. Mandela, however, pursued national reconciliation, and in rugby, he saw a way to appeal to white South Africans who were still unsure about their country's future.

In 1995, President Mandela brought the Rugby World Cup to South African soil. This was a risk. Rugby was the "white" sport, and for Black South Africans, the Springboks were a symbol of apartheid. For White South Africans, however, rugby is a way of life, and they were overjoyed by Mandela's securing the World Cup.

Nobody expected the Springboks to do much damage in the World Cup. The Boks had been cut off from international competition because of apartheid, and didn't have the same exposure to top teams that other countries had.

But the Boks won game after game, reaching the final against New Zealand, and they united both black and white behind them . On June 24, 1995, a crowd of 65,000, mostly white Afrikaners, filled Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. The stadium roared as President Mandela, wearing Springboks green, greeted the fans. Mandela was showered with a thunderous chant of “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!” The president, broadly grinning, doffed his cap and waved to his people.

South Africa prevailed at last on a Joel Stransky drop kick. Captain Francois Pienaar famously remarked "We didn't have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans!" when a reporter commented on the crowd's support. The picture of Mandela handing the World Cup to an exhausted, ecstatic Pienaar is iconic.

South Africa is still a troubled country, but its peaceful transition from segregated state to multiracial democracy still resonates. Today, the national anthem, a hybrid of the old anthem and a hymn popular with those resisting apartheid, is belted out by Springbok fans in five different languages. South Africa has enormous potential, a fact demonstrated by the heroes that brought Mandela and the Boks to victory 19 years ago.

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