Countless political leaders around the world have known how to court the popularity of sports but very few if any had a better feel for what sport could do than Nelson Mandela. He knew the language of sport but more than that he knew how to harness it.
He talked of sport in ways that few do. Sport Mandela said
• ‘Has the power to change the world’;
• ‘To unite people in a way that little else does’
• ‘It speaks to youth in a language they understand’,
• ‘It can create hope where once there was only despair’
• ‘We have only just started to use its potential to build up this country ‘.
Mandela’s life was punctuated with moments that resonated around the world.
20 April 1964: charged with sabotage he delivered a statement during his trial in Pretoria that revealed the depth of his resolve in the fight against apartheid and his willingness to lay down his life in an effort to end white racist rule.
11 Feb 1990: Mandela walked out of South Africa’s Victor Verster prison near Cape Town after 27 years in captivity. He noted in the FIFA documentary 90 Minutes for Mandela that ‘the game made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in’. Prisoner 466/64
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 Korr and Close’s (2009) 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,’ Mark Shinners, Prisoner 493/63;
‘We needed football. Without it there would have been so much depression. It made you feel free in an un-free status.’ Terror Lekota, Prisoner 14/76;
10 May 1994: Mandela became the first black President of South Africa after democratic elections, taking the oath of office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the South African capital.
If Mandela had previously recognized the power of sport to help in the dismantling of apartheid then he equally recognized the potential of sport to help with reconciliation. The promise of sport was captured under the ANC slogan of ‘A Better Life for All’.
24 June 1995: the President strolled onto the field at the Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg wearing the South African colours, congratulated the winning South African team in a moment that symbolized racial reconciliation
11July 2010: A smiling Mandela waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium at the closing ceremony of the 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.
The reasons why sport mattered varied from person to person but perhaps none more so than Mandela who 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 to day had that committed, sustained, conviction to harness and prioritize the place of sport and build other things around it, just think what could be done. The world would be a better place.
Mandela had fully grasped this critical potential like no other political leader or freedom fighter of his time.