How Mandela Used Sport To Change A Nation

How Mandela Used Sport To Change A Nation

The great Nelson Mandela sadly passed on 5th December. As tributes from across the world poured in for the former South African President, many came from the sporting community, all glowing for a man who truly changed the world.

It should not be ignored, therefore, that Mandela used sport as a tool during his time as president to help restructure and change the image of South Africa. For many, the rebirth of the country took place upon the sports field.

Sport, whether directly or indirectly, had some impact upon his political beliefs, stemming perhaps from his time incarcerated on Robben Island. During his imprisonment, Mandela watched from his cell in solitary confinement as his fellow prisoners played football in a fully structured prison league, where teams were formed based on political views.

The league was assembled using official FIFA rules from a handbook found by an inmate, with rules adhered to correctly, essential for maintaining the harmony within the volatile environment.

Fellow inmate Marcus Solomons, who took part in the league, said: “We’d gone to jail for democracy, and this was a chance to show ourselves that we could put that into practice”. The league took on a symbolic function, a representation of how the outside world should work, and a demonstration of how democracy could be introduced.

Despite not being able to take part, Mandela learnt from this, and learned how sport could unify. Three years after his release, and the now President Mandela watched on in 1995 as his South African side, brought back from sporting isolation due to the Apartheid rule, hosted and triumphed in the Rugby World Cup, with Mandela and the encouraging slogan “One Team, One Country”.

When handing the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, a brief moment of unification appeared, as the working of races side by side finally seemed possible. As Mandela congratulated Pienaar, the captain replied “it is nothing compared to what you have done for our country.”

A year later, and South Africans were cheering once more, with the national football team now celebrating African Cup of Nations success. Sure, not so much a global achievement, but another opportunity for patriotism to unite.

More recently, the 2010 World Cup saw South Africa host one of the largest sporting events in the world, and showed it was more than capable of doing so. Sporting achievement could bring together a divided country, and Mandela recognised that.

Mandela sought to build a euphoric sense of patriotism through a nation coming together through success and sport, rather than conflict and devastation.

The world is certainly a sadder place now Madiba is gone, but it’s a better one than if he had never arrived at all.


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