Comment: Mandela scored in political approach to sport

Nelson Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar after handing him the Rugby World Cup trophy in 1995. Picture: AFP/Getty
Nelson Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar after handing him the Rugby World Cup trophy in 1995. Picture: AFP/Getty
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THE former South African president recognised that sport is at the heart of hope, strength and nationhood, writes Prof Grant Jarvie

Many political leaders have attempted to harness the power of sport but few have understood it or been committed to it more than Nelson Mandela.

Sport, Mandela said, “has the power to change the world” and “to unite people in a way that little else does”. Furthermore “it speaks to youth in a language they understand”, “it can create hope where once there was only despair” and “we have only just started to use its potential to build up this country”.

From childhood to lawyer, political prisoner, to South African president (1994-1999) and revered international statesman, sport was ever present in his life. It was more than just a game, it was a tool in the fight against apartheid, in maintaining his dignity and discipline on Robben Island and in not forgetting the past but forgiving. The staging of rugby (1995) cricket (2003) and football (2010) World Cups were all seen as making a contribution to the rebuilding of and reconciliation within South Africa.

During the apartheid era (1948-1990), Mandela as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) recognised the power of the international sports boycott. The policy of the ANC, the South African Non-Racial-Olympic Committee and the South African Council on Sport was one of “No Normal Sport in an Abnormal Society”. The strength of such organisations lay in their refusal to separate sporting demands from broader demands for social change. It was a policy that called on the rest of the world to boycott the playing of sport with South Africa. This policy was supported by the Commonwealth heads of government when, on 15th June 1977, they signed the Gleneagles Agreement and in so doing agreed to withhold support for and discourage contact with South African sport under apartheid laws.

Expelled from Fifa and world football in 1976, South Africa was readmitted in 1992 and yet between 1964 and 1990 football inside South Africa helped to create a space of dignity, respect and democracy among those who would lead a future South Africa.

In the winter of 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Robben Island Prison, the high-security jail that for three decades was to hold him and thousands of other political prisoners. It was a sentence that was to reinforce his belief that sport could be used for positive and political purposes. Mandela was a keen boxer and athlete but on Robben Island he recognised what football meant to prisoners. He noted in the Fifa documentary 90 Minutes that “the game made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in”.

He was referring to the place of football in the daily lives of political prisoners. It was a view shared by others and captured in Chuck Korr and Marvis Close’s book More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid: “All that organization meant nothing if you didn’t have that little round thing rolling around on the ground every week,” said Mark Shinners, prisoner 493/63; “We needed football. Without it there would have been so much depression. It made you feel free in an unfree status,” said Mosiuoa Lekota, prisoner 14/76; “The maxim amongst us was that the struggle is outside. You have to come off the island much better equipped for the future,” said Solomon Mabuse, prisoner 505/63.

Maybe it was coincidence but in the same year that Mandela arrived on the island the prisoners requested the right to play football during their exercise periods. The request evolved into a successful struggle to create the Makana Football Association (MFA), involving 1,000 political prisoners competing in three divisions. On the 18 July 2007, football legends including Pele, Samuel Eto’o and George Weah joined ex-prisoners Anthony Suze, Sedick Isaacs, Lizo Sitoto and Mark Shinners on the Robben Island football pitch – which they had previously helped to build with their own hands, often rescuing salvage washed up on the shore to create football nets and goal posts.

They were there with Fifa officials and the South African 2010 World Cup organisers to mark Mandela’s 89th birthday and the MFA becoming an honorary member of Fifa. For the first time ever, the ruling body of world football had conferred membership on an organisation rather than a country or an individual.

The release of Mandela from prison in February 1990 was quickly followed by the release of other political prisoners, the holding in April 1994 of the first free elections in South Africa and the appointment of Mandela as president. If Mandela had previously recognised the power of sport to help in the dismantling of apartheid then he equally recognised the potential of sport to help with reconciliation. The promise of sport was captured under the ANC slogan of “A Better Life for All”. Speaking at the Commonwealth heads of government conference in Edinburgh in October 1997, the new South African minister of sport, Steve Tshwete, stated that sport in the new South Africa provided the basis for community building, economic development and the fostering of civic and national pride. Sport was viewed as being central to unity, development, reconciliation and nation-building.

South Africa’s hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup provided an ideal platform for sport to take centre stage within the politics of nation building. The moment when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup and the president donned the green springboks jersey and cap to hand the trophy to Francois Pienaar, knowingly embracing the blond captain of a game that had signified Afrikaner rule – became a symbol of unification later captured in the film Invictus.

In 2003 the Cricket World Cup was played in South Africa along with Zimbabwe and Kenya. Cape Town bid for the 2004 Olympics but lost out to Athens, while South Africa lost out to Germany in a bid to host the 2006 Fifa World Cup. However, South Africa persevered and hosted the 2010 Fife World Cup. A family tragedy meant that Mandela did not make the opening ceremony but he did appear in the stadium during the final game. This was to be his last public appearance.

It has been left to Mandela’s former prison mate and current president of South Africa Jacob Zuma, (captain of Rangers, one of the Makana Football Association clubs) to progress the winds of change. The reasons why football mattered varied from person to person but perhaps no one more so than Mandela grasped the idea that sport had a transformative capacity that could provide resources of hope in the most challenging of circumstances.

If only political leaders of today had that sustained conviction to harness and prioritise the place of sport and build other things around it, just think what could be done.

• Professor Grant Jarvie is chair of sport at the University of Edinburgh