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Nelson Mandela Used Sports To Heal a Racially Divided South Africa


The history books seldom, if at all, mention Nelson Mandela with sports.

However, Charles P. Korr, a history professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the co-author of “More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told,” writes in USA Today that Mandela knew sport could unify the white and black South Africans.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 Thursday, Dec. 5, believed sport could unite his race-torn country. In this historic photo, Springbok captain Francois Pienaar receives the Rugby World Cup from Mandela at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in June 1995.

South Africa was on the brink of a civil war in the early 1990s. Public protests around the world and in the nation’s streets put pressure on the government to end apartheid and earned the release of Nelson Mandela, who was held as a prisoner for 27 years until 1990 and reviled as a “terrorist” by the government.

Four years after his release from prison, he was elected President in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. A year later, he earned the respect of his country because he rallied the people of South Africa into a bid for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Korr writes how Mandela embraced Francois Pienaar, who was the blond captain of a traditionally white rugby team—a team that had been the personification of apartheid. The story was dramatized in the 2009 movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

“Mandela rightly assumed that the stirring moment of victory could serve as a symbol of a united country,” Korr writes in USA Today. 

No one predicted South Africa would make the finals, let alone win the crown jewel of rugby. But the Springboks did by defeating archrival and highly favored New Zealand. The team’s slogan was: “One team. One country.” And that’s exactly what happened at the World Cup as white and black fans stood and cheered wildly together at the game in Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

After the rugby World Cup in 1995, South Africa hosted the 1996 African Cup of nations in soccer and the 2003 Cricket World Cup. Mandela then brought the 2010 FIFA World Cup to South Africa.

“He recognized how much soccer meant to the vast majority of South Africans,” Korr writes. “The 2010 World Cup was one more example of using sports to bring together a nation in a common cause. This time, victory wasn’t to win a trophy, rather to show the world that the new South Africa was ready to play host to a month-long international sporting festival.”

Said Mandela about sport: “Sport can create hope where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. Sport has power to change the world.”

Read the full USA Today commentary by clicking here.

Duwayne Escobedo is the United States Sports Academy’s Director of Communications and The Sport Digest editor. You can reach him at descobedo@ussa.edu.


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