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Nelson Mandela, The Sports Fan


Nelson Mandela often was quoted as saying that sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire, but rugby in South Africa has traditionally been a sport played by whites. Most black South Africans saw it as a pass time of the ruling elite. The year after Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, his country hosted the Rugby World Cup. This was 1995.

John Carlin was bureau chief of The Independent newspaper in South Africa at the time. He wrote about those events in his book, "Playing the Enemy," which became the movie, "Invictus." He joined us from Johannesburg to take us back to that year when South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, had just one black player, yet President Mandela became their most prominent fan.

JOHN CARLIN: Any ordinary politician, any ordinarily good and decent politician, would have been somewhat alarmed at the presence of the Rugby World Cup event in South Africa, because rugby was always very, very divisive, in particular the national rugby team, the Springboks, which was perceived by white people as a symbol of identity, of pride and for that very reason was perceived by black people as a symbol of apartheid oppression. So, Mandela, being unlike Yasser Arafat, who was known as a man who never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, saw an opportunity where others didn't. And what he resolved to do was to transform this symbol of division into an instrument of unity and reconciliation. And, by golly, it worked sensationally well, exceeding his own expectation.

SIMON: I think a lot of us still remember the image of Mr. Mandela walking out onto the field in the Springboks jersey. Is there any way - yeah, I mean, how do we understand the symbolism of that? Because you have written in your current book that he was a sincere man but he was sincerely calculating.

CARLIN: Absolutely. But in this case, the calculation was very last minute, because it turned that on the very morning of the game, one of his bodyguards, somebody had this bright idea, why doesn't Madiba wear the green Springbok jersey? And Mandela instantly perceived this is actually a stroke of genius. There he was wearing the jersey of the ancestral enemy of black South Africa, wearing the jersey of his own jailors, of the people who, many of who actually wanted to see him executed rather than sent to jail. And so him coming out into the stadium wearing that jersey was an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness. On the other hand, he was putting out his hand, saying I want to shake your hand. And the crowd, God bless them, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly the rugby club crowd was not exactly known for their progressive political views, responded with even greater enthusiasm that Mandela would have imagined by all of them chanting Nelson, Nelson, Nelson. Mandela was offering them redemption and they were accepting it, and they were in turn accepting Mandela as their leader, as Mandela was telling them I am the leader not just of black South Africa as I used to be; I'm now the leader of all of you. I represent all of the interests of the whole of South Africa, including you the people who were my oppressors. And they viewed him from that day on with immense affection. And we're seeing that today in the response of white South Africa to Mandela's death.

SIMON: Did he create a lot of black rugby fans with that tournament too?

CARLIN: Well, I'm not sure if it created sort of enduring rugby fans, but he managed to generate vast enthusiasm among black South Africans for this hitherto detested Springbok team. And it was the first time, I think you can really safely say this, since the arrival of the first white settlers on the southern tip of Africa in 1652 that black and white South Africa shared one common goal - in this case that the South African rugby team, Springboks, should beat New Zealand in the finals, which they duly did. And the celebrations that night were as joyous in Soweto and other black townships as it was in the affluent, leafy white suburbs.

SIMON: Your son bears Nelson Mandela's name, doesn't he?

CARLIN: My son is called James, after my father, and Nelson, after Nelson Mandela.

SIMON: What do you hope of Nelson Mandela manifests itself in your son?

CARLIN: I would hope, above all, that he would inherit Mandela's reflex for kindness. Kindness is a word that I've striven to drum into my little boy's brain ever since he was born. Strip away the extraordinarily brilliant political leader that Mandela was and look at the person. And he was a person who embodied kindness. And the lovely word that Archbishop Tutu used when they asked him to the define Mandela for me, magnanimity, which is sort of kindness writ large.

SIMON: John Carlin, former South African bureau chief for The Independent newspaper and, of course, author of "Playing the Enemy" that was turned into the motion picture "Invictus." John, thanks so much for being with us.

CARLIN: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.