Home Opinion Op-Ed Columns The South Africa rugby lesson

The South Africa rugby lesson

Jaime J. Yambao

WHILE the sport is unfamiliar to most Filipinos, the victory of South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup championships is reminiscent of a great moment in the history of sports and politics, of another earlier Rugby World Cup, that of 1995 which South Africa hosted and won. It was not only the victory that made it memorable. It was more than a game. It brought unity to a divided nation.

A year before, apartheid (Afrikaner for institutionalized racial segregation) was abolished and a democratic election was held resulting in a black leader, Nelson Mandela, assuming the presidency. Several factors led the regime to conclude that apartheid was untenable and to release its grip on power. International pressure was one and was certainly overwhelming. In his speech before the United Nations (UN), President Mandela said: “We stand today to salute the UN organization and its members, both singly and collectively, for joining forces with the masses of our people in a common struggle that has brought about our emancipation and pushed back the frontiers of racism.”

The campaign against apartheid has been indeed one of the great success stories of the United Nations, and the leading role the Philippines played in it was acknowledged by President Mandela when he visited the Philippines. Much of the contribution of the Philippines was actually due to our late colleague, Ambassador Nicasio Valderrama, who as rapporteur of the Fourth Committee, was known as Mr. Anti-Apartheid. Unfortunately, apart from the respect of his colleagues, I do not think Ambassador Valderrama ever got any formal recognition for his anti-apartheid work. He died a victim of the “Case of the Vanishing Pension” that I wrote about previously in this corner, unable to afford a burial plot for himself, which had to be donated by a kind and generous friend.

As mentioned in the beginning, the people that Mandela found himself presiding over was torn by mistrust, the black people conscious of the sufferings that the apartheid regime inflicted on them and the white people fearful of retaliation from those they had oppressed. Even the blacks and the whites in the President’s security detail were reportedly leery of each other.


With the abolition of apartheid, among the international sanctions that were lifted was the ban on South Africa’s participation in international sports competitions. Mandela’s government vied for and won the right to host the Rugby World Cup and the Football World Cup. Mandela himself could have had a hand in bidding to host those global sports events. He was an athlete, a boxer before. He once told an interviewer that he liked boxing because in the ring “you fight as equals.” He appreciated sports as a universal language that knows no color. He saw the Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to forge unity among the people of his country. That meant some doing. Rugby has come to be a sport beloved by the whites but despised by the blacks. The national rugby team was regarded as an arrogant symbol of the apartheid regime. It was actually so hated by the black population that it was common to find the latter rooting for the opposing team.

How Mandela used the Rugby World Cup to unify his people has been captured by the critically acclaimed movie “Invictus” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the national rugby team. The first thing Mandela did was to manifest his support for the captain and his team and to rally them to bring glory to the country. Mandela totally won Pienaar to his side after he showed him the tiny prison cell he spent 27 years of his life in and told him how he endured by reciting to himself the poem “Invictus” by Henley, generally remembered for its final lines: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” He thus inspired the younger man to rise even to unknown heights no matter how unfavorable and many the odds.

Mandela and the team captain worked out a strategy to win the support of the black population. The team toured the country teaching rugby to black children. Mandela appeared in public with the team and would call Pienaar to inquire about how their practicing for the World Cup was proceeding. Come the Rugby World Cup and South Africans of all colors flocked to the stadium or the TV screens to root for the national team, whose slogan was now “One Team, One Country.” President Mandela during the final between South Africa and New Zealand went out to the pitch in the olive green uniform of the team, bearing on his back the number of the captain to bolster the members’ fighting spirit. Buoyed by the encouragement of the President and the hundreds of thousands of South Africans in the stands, the team went on to win the first World Cup for South Africa. South Africans everywhere celebrated their win as one. It seems that Mandela’s rugby team taught the black children rugby well. South Africa would win the World Cup again in 2004 and this time the national team was no longer all-white. Even now they’re singing and dancing in the streets in Soweto and everywhere else because South Africa just won the World Cup a third time. This last time Peinaar had retired and the new captain is a black guy, Siva Kolisi, who seems to be a legend in the making with his Mandela-like humility and generosity.

President Mandela had long given up the presidency, refusing to seek a second term. He had retired and became an elder statesman to the world. He had died but he would always be remembered for what he accomplished and left as his legacy. The apartheid regime seems not only to have discriminated against the black population as a race but also to have almost ignored their existence. They were left in the most abject poverty and deprived of the basic necessities. Mandela’s presidency brought a considerable improvement in their material lives. But this was not his priority goal. His priority goal was national reconciliation.

Mandela had patiently negotiated with Prime Minister de Klerc of the apartheid government a peaceful transition to a democratic constitution for all. He reassured the white population that they would not be discriminated against. Although his party, the African National Congress, won an absolute majority at the polls, he named de Klerc deputy president and included members of the latter’s party in his Cabinet. With the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela certainly realized the paramount objective of his presidency, national reconciliation, in a most spectacular fashion.

A short time after the Rugby World Cup , I had a chance to go to South Africa and meet President Mandela as a member of the Philippine delegation to the Ninth Session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. We found the South Africans, black and white, working together harmoniously to ensure the conference would have a successful outcome. Some people may call it charisma. I thought President Mandela exuded a spiritual air about him and might have been imagining a halo over his countenance.

So far, it seems that the racial divide that Mandela did his best to heal remains healed.

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Today’s Front Page November 12, 2019

Today’s Front Page November 12, 2019