Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers - Nelson Mandela
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed away last Thursday 5th December. He was a great man and has left an outstanding legacy not only to South Africa but to the whole world.
I first took a genuine interest in this man when I studied in Galway over 30 years ago where I shared accommodation with two lads from Lesotho, a country which is landlocked and completely surrounded by South Africa. During apartheid Lesotho provided political asylum to vast numbers of South African refugees. My college mates and I have remained close friends to this day. They talked incessantly back then about Mandela and often made comparisons of what was happening in South Africa to the troubles in Northern Ireland. South Africa was a more complex issue though.
I first visited South Africa as a tourist in 1993 and now when I visit I do not regard myself as such. Since that initial trip, I had an insatiable desire for knowledge about South Africa and Nelson Mandela. I went to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town and stood in the cell where he was imprisoned for 18 years. He was moved to Pollsmoor in the Cape Town suburb of Cape Town after Robben Island for a further 6 years.
I have often driven past this high security prison where one can see the prisoners working the fields. Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster prison in Paarl which lies 37 miles northeast of Cape Town where he was transferred for his last three years of captivity. I can only imagine how the black people suffered under white rule during apartheid which was a system of racial segregation in South Africa enforced through legislation. There is a museum in Soweto, Johannesburg which is dedicated to the struggles of this period. I spent hours there trying to take in the brutality that was inflicted on black people then.
Because of Nelson Mandela, black people have equal rights now in South Africa. He modeled this country in what we know now as the rainbow nation. There are massive changes in the country in respect of discrimination and human rights. It is not perfect. Tensions still exist between the whites and blacks, crime is rife and corruption seems to be the norm within the current government.
It will take a generation and maybe more to change the mindset. Many white people still expect to get preferential treatment and to be called “sir” by their white peers. Black people in places of power tend to accommodate their cronies whilst the impoverished black people most of who live in townships (informal settlements) exists from day to day.
Extreme poverty and extreme wealth is still very much evident in all the major cities. It is only since Mandela’s reign as president that young black people have had access to proper and affordable education. The young educated black South African forms only about two per cent of the population. This figure is on the increase. The remarkable trait that Nelson Mandela possessed was his ability to forgive. He forgave his oppressors and reached out to embrace them.
As a white person in South Africa, I feel totally comfortable. The majority of black people do not hold a grudge against the white man. This attitude is borne out of Nelson Mandela’s capacity to include all people in the new South Africa. He was a charismatic man, a political genius and a genuine prophet of our times. While he was in the ANC Youth League in the 1950s he predicted that he would be the country’s first black president. That he was is a miracle.
In his book ‘Playing the Enemy’ John Carlin gives an excellent account of Mandela’s influence on the South Africa team winning the rugby world cup in 1995. This was about more that winning the world cup. It was about winning the hearts of the white Afrikaans population. Rugby and cricket were the domains of the white population. Soccer was the game of the black people. Mandela learned to speak the Afrikaans language while he was in prison. He was the new president of South Africa when he summoned the country’s rugby captain Francois Pienaar to his office. The rugby world cup tournament was taking place in South Africa at the time. I’m sure that Pienaar’s ancestors had come to South Africa generations before and tried to obliterate the black man. Mandela’s basically wanted Pienaar to lead his team to victory because it would help unify the country. He wasn’t overt about this but Pienaar knew that’s what Mandela was asking. It worked. South Africa won the world cup and Mandela’s name rang out all over Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The rest is history.
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” Nelson Mandela