Invictus: How Nelson Mandela used Rugby to unite South Africa

N Madhavan | | Updated on: Nov 03, 2019

South Africa's Siya Kolisi celebrates with the Webb Ellis trophy after winning the World Cup Final at the International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan, November 2, 2019 | Photo Credit: MATTHEW CHILDS

As Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s first Black Rugby captain, celebrates World Cup success with his team, we revisit another famous South African triumph, inspired by Nelson Mandela


History was created on Saturday when South Africa’s rugby team beat England comprehensively to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama, Japan.

This is not the first time the Springboks have won the Rugby World Cup. They have done it twice before, in 1995 and 2007. But what is significant is that this time the man who lifted the trophy is Siya Kolisi, first black captain of the South African Rugby team.

If there is one person who would have been most excited with this outcome, it would have been Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa. But for him, the Springboks would have not existed today and South Africa’s prowess in a game dominated by the country’s white minority would have ended with Apartheid in the mid-1990s.

Also read: Nelson Mandela — Global statesman and peace icon

A South Africa divided

It was 1994. Apartheid had ended and Mandela had just won the first election in which Blacks had the right to vote. He assumed the Presidency of a country deeply divided. A large sections of Blacks, who had been dominated politically, socially and economically for decades, bayed for revenge. The Whites, fearing reprisals, planned to exit the country.

The statesman that Mandela was, he understood the implications. A rainbow nation, he realised, was the only way forward to ensure prosperity in South Africa. He not only forgave those who imprisoned him for over 26 years but also wanted his followers to do the same. But they were not that magnanimous.

Breaking with the past


File photo of Nelson Mandela


They wanted to dismantle any institutions that reminded them of Apartheid and white dominance. The Springboks were one such symbol.

Prior to 1995 Rugby was a game that was played predominantly by Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch, German and French settlers. It was their pride. Blacks preferred football. In fact, such was their hatred for Rugby that they went to see the game only to support the team that played opposite South Africa.

When efforts were made to drop the Springboks name and its colours after he came to power, Mandela intervened to stop the move. He argued that taking away things that were dear to Afrikaners’ hearts would only increase their insecurity and come in the way of building a rainbow nation.

The inspiration for Invictus

He did not stop at that. When he learnt that South Africa, for the first time, was hosting the Rugby World Cup in 1995, he came up with an audacious idea — use Rugby to unite South Africa. How he pulled it off became the subject of a book, Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin, which was later made into the movie ‘Invictus’ by Clint Eastwood.

Mandela’s colleagues thought the idea was crazy. But such was his stature that they barely murmured their misgivings. He understood the game better and built a lasting friendship with the then captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar. He broke the wall between the team and the Blacks.

He openly supported the team and sent a clear message that the Springboks should have the support of not just whites but all South Africans.

World Cup triumph

That the team played well in the World Cup helped, as interest in the game spread across Black communities. When the Springboks won the finals against New Zealand and celebrations broke out across South Africa, it was clear that Mandela had won. Blacks stormed the streets celebrating the victory. Attired in the Springbok colours and cap, Mandela was beaming as he presented the trophy to Pienaar.

That day the Springboks stopped being the property of Afrikaners and became South Africa’s pride. In 1995, there was just one black player in the team. Today there are many, including captain Siya Kolisi.

At least when it comes to Rugby, Mandela achieved his dream of building a rainbow nation.

Published on November 03, 2019
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