Soweto, South Africa —
The people crowding the streets of downtown Oklahoma City in commemoration of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers were similar to the jubilant crowds that filled the streets of Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa, when that nation’s rugby team defeated the national team of New Zealand for the World Rugby Cup in 1995.
The story of that contest and how it transformed South Africa is set forth in the recently published “Knowing Mandela, a Personal Portrait” by journalist John Carlin.
The author details how bitterness and suspicion divided black and white South Africans when apartheid officially ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela was elected that nation’s first black president. Mandela had been imprisoned by the South African government in 1964 and was not released until 1990.
Traditionally, the black population supported soccer teams while white South Africans followed the national rugby team, the Springboks. Many black South Africans would cheer for the team that was playing the Springboks. But Mandela saw a chance to use the rugby team, which was overwhelmingly white, as a way to bring all South Africans together. He began by arranging to have the World Cup Games to be held in South Africa in 1995. He later met with the young white man who was captain of the team, Francois Pienaar, and urged him and his teammates to reach out to black South Africans by appearing in the black townships and coaching young people there in the sport.
Prior to the game with Australia, Mandela came to the Springbok’s training camp and told the players that “You now have the opportunity of serving South Africa and uniting our people. Remember, all of us, black and white are behind you.”
The Springboks defeated Australia and met the New Zealand team on the field in a stadium in Johannesburg that was filled with white spectators. Nelson Mandela came onto the field wearing the green jersey and green cap of the Springbok team and the crowd began to cheer him and call his name.
Carlin quotes Pienaar as saying that it was an almost magical moment in which everyone in the stadium and those watching it on television realized that all South Africans regardless of race were united as one people.
When the Springboks won, jubilant crowds of both black and white people celebrated the victory in the streets.
Carlin also details how on several different occasions, when it appeared possible that a civil war would break out in South Africa, Mandela managed to work with all the diverse stakeholders there to avoid such a catastrophe.
When black leader Chris Hani was assassinated, Mandela went on national television and called for everyone to remain calm and talked of how the assassin had been captured by police because a white woman had written down the license number of his car and gave it to the authorities.
Like most people who dealt with Mandela, the author was charmed by him, and he makes clear that Mandela’s warmth and charm was bestowed on everyone who came in contact with him regardless of their status
The South African president remained close to some of the men who guarded him during his years of imprisonment and also to the journalists and reporters who covered him during his years in office. It would be fortunate if there were leaders of this stature on the world stage today.
William F. O’Brien is an Oklahoma City attorney.