When you consider the history of racial division in South Africa and the inequalities Apartheid embodied, it is amazing to acknowledge the role sport has played- not only as a form of activism but also as tool for unification in the new democratic South Africa.
You associate sport, especially team sport, with teambuilding and creating a single identity – An identity that every single member respects and gives his or her all to. More importantly, it is the camaraderie and the enigmatic bond that contributes to the holistic experience that team-mates attain when they play sport.Now just imagine taking those unique and positive qualities and applying it to a country that was so divided and that has become so wary of social injustices, due to the hatred between races that plagued society.
Well, for one man it seemed a viable solution, even if it was a temporary one, to try and build a new young nation out of a dark past.
Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first democratically elected president, used sport, particularly rugby, as a way of breaching the divide. He knew he needed something to promptly build a sense of unity. The 1995 Rugby World Cup could not have come sooner.
Mandela managed to rally support for a predominantly white Springbok team from citizens with varied racial and demographic backgrounds and unite under a new flag as well. Both were portrayed as a single representation for all in South Africa and for once in our history, a unified South African identity started to emerge, even though we only had one year of democracy at the time.
Even more astonishing, was that the Springboks represented the oppressors (white), as players of colour were not allowed to don the green and gold during Apartheid. The Springbok name and emblem was also on the verge of being destroyed but Mandela realised that in order to build a unified nation, the acceptance of everyone’s heritage, values and other social components were needed.
In this case, the acceptance of the Springbok emblem by Mandela, meant the inclusion of the white population (Afrikaners – who were formerly the oppressors) as part of the new democratic South Africa.
Mandela clearly knew the influence sport had in bringing about togetherness, as he said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language that they understand. Sport can create hope when there was once despair. It’s more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
To this day South Africa still uses sport for nation building. Rugby is not the only prominent sport. Soccer and cricket complete the trio for this sporting enthused nation.
Yes, the vision of Mandela is still very much alive today and sport will probably always play a role in trying to establish a unified identity for this nation as it did in 1995.