How Nelson Mandela united South Africa during the Rugby World Cup — The Power of Sport

Sunil Sharma
Feb 12 · 4 min read

“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 there was only despair.”

Nelson Mandela saw the value in sport. He saw an opportunity to heal and unite an increasingly divided South Africa. During a time where there was tension over the country’s first ever black president. Nelson Mandela went onto the pitch wearing the team’s traditional green cap and jersey following South Africa’s unlikely 1995 Rugby World Cup win. The vast majority of the stadium were stunned but followed with chants of “Nelson.” It is arguably one of the best examples of how sport can help heal division.


Mandela saw the power of sport early on but in a number of different ways. He used sport to promote peace as well as to bring justice. During his stints in prison he supported international boycotts of South African teams at events across the world. South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 till 1992 and was also banned by a number of different international federations. Things were going to change following Nelson’s release from prison and his presidential win.

Nelson Mandela’s main priority during his five-year presidency was to reconcile the whites with the black majority despite the contempt they had for one another.

He saw an opportunity with the South African (Springboks) rugby team as the way to unite one of the most divided countries towards a common goal. Shortly after becoming president, Mandela invited Francois Pienaar (Springbok captain) to his office. He was able to get Pienaar on board without him fully knowing the plan for the new South Africa. The issue for Mandela was far greater than just pleasing the white side of South Africa as there was an uphill battle with black supporters too. They had grown up to hate rugby, the old anthem, the old flag and even more so the green Springbok shirt. Many black South Africans would even go to rugby stadiums to cheer the opposing team. Mandela wanted to establish the Springboks as the team for all including the black South Africans but this task was going to be made difficult with their being just only non-white player in Chester Williams.

The initial response Mandela received was not good with him being on the end of boos from his own people. However, over time Mandela was able to persuade black South Africans to amazingly forgive thus achieving his goal. On June 24th 1995, the day of the final, black South Africans were just as excited as their white compatriots who were desperately wanting them to win. “One Team, One Country” became the slogan for South Africa Rugby team. Morne du Plessi, the Springbok team manager had the team learn the old black resistance song “Nkosi Sikelele Africa” which ended up becoming the national anthem. With the team off to a winning start alongside the South African players singing the black resistance song, it became tough for both white and blacks fans to resist.

Against the odds South Africa went all the way and reached the final. Mandela minutes before the final walked on the pitch to shake the players’ hands with around 95 percent of the crowd being white but what followed was remarkable. The stadium screamed “Nel-son! Nel-son!” He had finally been accepted by the whites of South Africa. According to almost every rugby pundit, South Africa had no chance of beating New Zealand. However, they were wrong. South Africa went on to the win the Rugby World Cup.

Mandela showed the world the power of sport. He was able to use sport to reconcile a country with white South Africans initially fearing they could lose their jobs. However, he was able to use rugby to inspire and unite the country. Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok’s jersey at the final was an iconic moment that set the tone for universal support.

Sport tends to be about competition but Mandela was able to prove that sport can be a lot more than just that with it being about bringing people together. He was able to use sport to build up a nation. He played a huge role in bringing the FIFA World Cup to South Africa with many stating his speech at the final bidding as the key factor.

As Mandela once said: “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.”

Sunil Sharma

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Finance // Aarza Lyfe Foundation // Writer // Minimalist // Avid Reader 🌍 🌱

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