For a number of years I had a dual career working in radio and working for South African Airways. It was a very special time to work for the airline as it, and the country adapted to the post apartheid era. Many of my colleagues had been a part of the struggle to smash the apartheid regime, and were well connected within the ANC. Through them I made an approach to interview former president Nelson Mandela who passed away over night.
They very kindly helped me get past a great deal of the red tape. I wanted to conduct an interview with Mr Mandela from a sporting perspective. My questions had been submitted and the green light had been given.
I wished to discuss the fact that as a young man he had been a boxer, and I wished to know if the sport had taught him the discipline that he showed in his live. What lessons did he learn from boxing that helped him in life? While he was in prison he admitted that he would listen to the cricket and when South Africa where playing Australia he supported the Australians. I wished to ask him how it felt supporting the team playing against a country he loved, but a regime he detested.
Having already disposed of the national flag debate raged within the National Executive Council over which national anthem should be played at sporting and national events. Many believing that the old one should immediately be forgotten. it was Mandela who suggested that the country play two. A decision had been made by his colleagues while he took a phone call to cease the playing of the Afrikaaner Die Stem and replace it with Nkosi Sikelele. He told them ” This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people who you don’t represent yet. With the stroke of a pen you would take a decision to destroy the very – the only – basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.”
Members of the ANC also no longer wanted to allow the national rugby team to known as the Springboks. The Springbok name and badge were deemed the last an third lasting symbol of the Apartheid regime. He pulled rank and made a decision for the name to remain. Then he called in members who were against such a decision one by one and explained why it was important that it remained. I wished to discuss why he made such a decision that went against all of his closest allies.
Then of course there was the moment when he wore the shirt of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar to the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. He of course repeated the gesture in 1996 when he wore Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey’s shirt to the final of the Cup of African Nations, which South Africa also won. Were these easy things to do, and what message was he hoping to send the country, and did he feel he achieved it?
Then there was Madiba Magic, did he feel any pressure as he took his seat in the stands? Madiba Magic was the fact that his mere presence in the stadium tended to see South Africa lift and when most of the sporting encounters he attended. I remember being at Ellis Park when the Springboks played the All Blacks and Mandela walked on the pitch before the game. The crowd rose as one to applaud him. It may sound corny but I have never felt so much love directed at one person. Irrespective of the colour of their skin, or who they were supporting, every single person was on their feet applauding. If unification needed defining it was in that moment. South Africa duly won, and post match Andrew Mehrtens from the All Blacks said to me ” I knew we were stuffed the minute he walked out on the pitch.”
Sadly our agreed interview was postponed at the last minute because he was behind on the deadlines of a book he was writing and had to dedicate more time to that. He would not be able to consider talking to me until it was finished. Sadly once it was, I was never able to obtain another time.
It is a shame, but I am privileged to have been in the great man’s presence and have felt the aura that so many talk of.
Mandela understood the importance of sport in a nation. “Sport can reach out to people in a way which politicians can’t” he said when President.
South Africa, Africa and the world are going to miss a man who deserves to be called ‘great.’ A man who did not seek revenge, who realised the importance of dialogue, stood up for what he believed in and through everything never lost his humility.
When asked how he would like to be remembered he simply said ” It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered. I’d leave that entirely to South Africans.” Everyone will have their own memories of the man, and those memories should never be allowed to die.
Nelson Mandela also said “I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela.'” Let us hope that his wish is granted, because his name says so many things to so many people. To me I will never know just how important a part sport played in his life and making him the man he was as well as helping him unite a nation, but he will never be forgotten.
May he Rest in Peace.