Doha Debates– Don't settle for a Divided World
Podcast / December 07 2021

How South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup win is still felt today

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The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked the end of apartheid and South Africa’s return to the international sports stage. The home team, the Springboks, weren’t expected to go far. Instead, they won it all. And if that sounds to you like the kind of thing Hollywood would make a movie about, you’re right. It’s the story at the center of Invictus, the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The movie ends with Nelson Mandela being driven away from the stadium in Johannesburg, his car surrounded by overjoyed fans. But the true impact of that day — and that game — is still felt in South Africa today.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

 

IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:

When Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994, South Africa officially became a democracy. 

 

NEWSCLIP OF NELSON MANDELA SPEAKING:

We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both Black and white, will be able to talk tall without any fear in their hearts. A rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. 

 

IBTIHAJ: But it wasn’t until the following year and an international sporting event that the country really came together. 

 

SOUTH AFRICAN MAN:

A friend of mine said he was standing next to this bunch of, sort of, classic right-wing Afrikaners, wearing their, sort of, khaki outfits and drinking their brandies and Cokes, and how he just saw these guys — about half a dozen of them — all chanting Nelson’s name with gusto. Except for one of them, who was so moved that he was just shedding tears and repeating to himself over and over, “That’s my president, that’s my president.” And I think that sentiment of “that’s my president” would have been echoed all around the country by thousands, if not millions of white South Africans who were watching that game. 

 

IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. 

 

The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked the end of apartheid and South Africa’s return to the international sports stage. The home team, the Springboks, weren’t expected to go far. Instead, they won it all. And if that sounds to you like the kind of thing Hollywood would make a movie about, you’re right. It’s the story at the center of Invictus, the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. 

 

[CLIP FROM INVICTUS PLAYS]

 

MATT DAMON (AS FRANCOIS PIENAAR): 

Welcome, Mr. President. 

 

MORGAN FREEMAN (AS NELSON MANDELA): 

Gentlemen, forgive me for interrupting your work a day before an important match, but I just wanted to come and wish you good luck in person. Sometimes, very seldom, as president, I am allowed to do what I want. 

 

DAMON (AS PIENAAR): Mr. President, this is — 

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Oh, I know who this is. André. 

 

LOUIS PIETERSE (AS ANDRÉ JOUBERT): 

Yes, sir. 

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Good luck. 

 

PIETERSE (AS JOUBERT): Thank you, sir. 

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Brendon, good luck to you. Gavin, good luck. James …

 

IBTIHAJ: The movie ends with Nelson Mandela being driven away from the stadium, his car surrounded by overjoyed fans. [SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING] But the true impact of that day — and that game — is still felt in South Africa today. Reporter Elna Schutz has the story. 

 

ELNA SCHUTZ:

Akona Ndungane was just a child when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But over a decade later, in 2007, the Springboks won again. 

 

2007 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING:

Less than one minute to go. South Africa destined to become the world champions twelve years after they won it the first time.

 

ELNA: Akona was a player on the team. He remembers flying back to Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo Airport after the win. 

 

AKONA NDUNGANE:

I think, as a South African — and I speak on behalf of everyone that was there in 2007 — you actually realize what it meant when you land back in O.R. Tambo and then you see, you know, the people that come and cheer for you. You know, everyone — black, white, colored — just all wearing the green jersey and just happy. 

 

ELNA: Akona felt the unity and pride in the country, not just on the official tour, but back in his smaller hometown, Mthatha.

 

AKONA: The former president of my dad’s club arranged, sort of, like a tour for me to go back to Mthatha with my winning medal to just drive around in a bakkie —

 

ELNA: A bakkie — that’s the local slang for a small pickup truck. 

 

AKONA: You know, you can see that it meant a lot to the people as well. And, you know, just to interact with the people — 

 

ELNA: Imagine Akona, this broad-shouldered man with a warm smile and shoulder-long dreadlocks, driving through the streets, waving to kids and people who can now see someone like them come home victorious. 

 

AKONA: — and just to show them, “Yes, I come from Mthatha.” It’s a very small place in the country, but anyone can come out of a place like that and go and represent the Springboks in the world. So, so it gave hope, I believe, to youngsters from Mthatha. 

 

[2007 NEWSCLIP FROM 2007 RUGBY WORLD CUP PLAYS] 

 

AKONA: It’s great to know that all the people in South Africa is behind us. 

 

MALE SOUTH AFRICAN INTERVIEWER:

And a lot of Blacks here. 

 

AKONA: Yeah, yeah, there is. 

 

ELNA: Being a Black South African player and part of the champion team? That’s something that Akona doesn’t take for granted. Akona was one of six non-white players on the 2007 squad, and in 2019, when the Springboks won the cup again, they were led by their first Black captain.

 

2019 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING:

Siya Kolisi and South Africa are Rugby World Cup kings in Japan! [SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING] 

 

ELNA: It wasn’t always this way. 

 

AKONA: You know, sometimes I even get emotional when I talk about it. And I think, you know, it starts to go back with the ’95 World Cup, because for me, that’s when I saw what it did in the country. Because rugby was associated as a white sport. 

 

ELNA: Back in 1995, there was only one person of color on the squad. His name was Chester Williams. 

 

AKONA: I think, as a Black person, to see Chester Williams playing for the Springboks and scoring tries, it kind of gave me hope that, “OK, if he can do it, then there’s a chance I can also do it.” 

 

ELNA: Akona was young, just 14, when the Springboks played the New Zealand team. They were known as the All Blacks in the final. He wouldn’t really understand what the game meant for many years afterwards. Still, he remembers it being a big deal. 

 

AKONA: The hype around the Springboks winning and beating the All Blacks was for everyone to see and to understand. 

 

ELNA: But of course, Akona remembers that final. Every South African I know above a certain age has a memory of that day, including me. 

 

AKONA: So what are your ’95 memories that you have? 

 

ELNA: So I — I was very young. I was five. 

 

AKONA: Ouch. 

 

ELNA: [LAUGHS] I’m sorry. 

 

AKONA: [LAUGHS] No problem. 

 

ELNA: So my memory — I have a memory, but I’m not 100% sure — which is, at that time, if you wanted to watch the game, I think, I think you had to — one of the options was to watch it on DStv, which is like cable TV, I suppose. And we had — we had it, but not all of, sort of, the people in the neighborhood did. So we would be the family where all of the uncles and aunts would come over. And so I have a memory of being a very young child and sitting in our living room with, sort of, everyone, and having the snacks and, like, knowing that something big is happening because everybody is in our house. 

 

[SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC]

 

ELNA: I want to take you back into that year, beyond the snacks and the cheering and the general joy of a World Cup, and explain why that tournament was, and remains, important to my country. 

 

1995 was an exciting year for Rodney Nyathi. He was 17, about to finish high school, and looking forward to leaving his rural village to go study at university. With South Africa’s first democratic elections just the year before, the racist political system of apartheid and laws restricting movement had been abolished. Rodney was now part of a new group of young people who could go to university wherever they wanted to. 

 

RODNEY NYATHI:

…And it was a very, very beautiful year, because obviously I was looking forward to my admission to university, and Pretoria was my destination. 

 

ELNA: Pretoria was the capital, the seat of the previous government, and still culturally aligned to it. So Rodney was a bit tense about going there. 

 

RODNEY: Of course, this was the different environment. An environment where you, as a Black person at my age, will not just — if even if you are lost in direction, will not generally approach a white person and ask for the direction. An environment where there was a lot of superiority complex and inferiority complex. 

 

ELNA: But things were changing and happening both in Rodney’s life and in sports stadiums around the country. 

 

RODNEY: And if you remember very well, we’re in anticipation of the world rugby that was going to take place in the capital city — some games, and some in Johannesburg. The mood was very high, and we were living in great anticipation for this global showpiece. 

 

ELNA: For South Africa, this excitement was about far more than just being the host country. During apartheid, we had been excluded from competing internationally, and this was the big comeback. The fact that it was rugby in particular was also significant. 

 

RODNEY: The sporting codes were so much of segregation way back then. Soccer was known to be the Black sport, and rugby was more of a white sport. But the excitement was there, and I was looking forward to that, as well. 

 

ELNA: Staging a rugby tournament at a time when a more racially diverse government was stepping up was a bit risky and unusual to see. 

 

BRITISH MAN:

Nelson Mandela had been president for one year. And Nelson Mandela’s chief task as president was to cement the foundations of what was a young and fragile new South African democracy that was under threat — in particular, from the right wing, from the far right. 

 

ELNA: John Carlin is a journalist and author. He wrote a book about this World Cup called Playing the Enemy, which was adapted into the movie Invictus

 

JOHN CARLIN: There were significant numbers of people — white South Africans — who were unhappy, fearful. They had been led to believe — conditioned to believe — through their lives that nothing would be more nightmarish and more detrimental to their interests than a Black government. Nelson Mandela had been sold to white people as a fearsome terrorist. 

 

ELNA: The new government was fragile, and the situation could have easily turned violent. 

 

JOHN: Yeah, it was a time of hope for South Africa, of course, with Mandela as president. But it was also a time of anxiety. And Mandela was very much aware of the need, as I say, to try and solidify the foundations of the new South African democracy and avoid what was still then perceived as the peril of a civil war and certainly —  if not a full-on civil war, which was the worst-case scenario: South Africa being submitted to a terrorist war by, by the far right. 

 

ELNA: Nelson Mandela had learned about rugby during his time in prison. He used the sport as a way to connect with the prison wardens and government officials he was trying to negotiate with. Now that he was president, he was using the sport again deliberately. He and the African National Congress Party had agreed to host the Rugby World Cup before taking power, knowing its potential importance. 

 

JOHN: You know, it’s as if Mandela said, “OK, if you behave well and let us have the elections and respect the election results, then we’re going to give you a present in exchange, and that will be the Rugby World Cup.” And so people — white people in particular — were very, very pleased about this. Black people were much more hesitant, and saying, you know, “What the hell’s going on? Why are we hosting this competition, of this sport which we hate so much? In particular, at the center of which is going to be the South African national team, the Springboks, which for us has always been a point of, sort of, of discord. An object, really, of hate, symbolizing all the racial discrimination we’ve endured for so long.” 

 

ELNA: Previously, Black people, if they watched rugby at all, would usually support whoever the national team, the Springboks, was playing against. Now, Mandela had to convince his own party, as well as the country at large, that it was a good idea to unite behind the South African team as one. 

 

JOHN: So there were obviously mixed feelings about this, but Mandela had given his blessing to the World Cup being staged in South Africa. And, you know, the vast majority of Black people accepted Mandela not only as their leader, but as their hero, as their idol, and were willing to go along with it. Even if they might have been a little bit perplexed as to what their sentiments might be once the World Cup started — whether they would actually continue with the old attitude of wanting the rival teams to win, or whether now, at last, for the first time, they’d actually want the South African national team to win. And that was a question that was very much in the balance as the World Cup drew closer. 

 

ELNA: Mandela connected with the team directly, starting with Francois Pienaar, the team captain. That’s Matt Damon in Invictus, if you’ve seen the movie. 

 

[CLIP FROM INVICTUS PLAYS]

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Francois, what an honor. [LAUGHS]

 

ELNA: Months after taking office, President Mandela invited Francois for tea at the Union Buildings. That’s the seat of government. 

 

[CLIP FROM INVICTUS PLAYS]

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Thank you for coming all this way to see me. 

 

DAMON (AS PIENAAR): Yes, sir. Thank you for inviting me, Mr. President. 

 

ELNA: He may not have said it directly, but it was clear that Mandela was hoping Francois would be his champion. To win the World Cup as a signal of unity. 

 

[CLIP FROM INVICTUS PLAYS]

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Tell me, Francois. What is your philosophy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best? 

 

DAMON (AS PIENAAR): By example. I’ve always thought to lead by example, sir. 

 

FREEMAN (AS MANDELA): Well, that is right. That is exactly right.

 

ELNA: The day before the first game, Mandela made it more personal by visiting the squad during training. Francois addressed the media. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP OF PIENAAR SPEAKING:

Tomorrow, we know there’s one guy in the stand that we have to play for, and that’s the president. 

 

SOUTH AFRICAN MAN: 

It wasn’t planned. Never felt like a PR exercise. It felt like it was real. It felt like it was genuine. 

 

ELNA: This is Rudolf Straeuli. He was one of the Springbok players who was greeted by President Mandela that day. 

 

RUDOLF STRAEULI: We were obviously underdogs, and nobody expected us to really win the World Cup. We were just trying out, we were just privileged to be in that moment. 

 

IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. 

 

[PIANO MUSIC]

 

IBTIHAJ: And now, back to the South African Springboks and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. 

 

ELNA: The Springboks adopted the slogan “One Team, One Country” for the cup. As the games went on, the Springboks had some wins and some losses, but the underdogs made it through all the way to the final. 

 

The big game took place at Ellis Park at the center of Johannesburg. Rudolf is now the CEO of the Lions Rugby Company, who play in that stadium. It is now called the Emirates Airline Park. So, to give me a better sense of that final, he and I get into a golf cart and take a bit of a ride. 

 

RUDOLF: This is our, our main entrance where the buses stop, where the players drop off.

 

ELNA:  We head through the bottom of the building, which is eerily quiet on an ordinary day during a pandemic, and through the tunnel that Rudolf and the players walked onto the field. We stop in the middle of the pristine green patch and relive the moment a bit. Just a note here: Rudolf calls President Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, which is usually an endearing sign of respect. 

 

RUDOLF: You can see the presidential box. So Madiba was sitting up there where those maroon chairs are, and obviously, that’s where your — your VIP seating. But yeah, the stadium was full. It was more than 60,000 people. It could take 62, but I think, on the day — I think there was more than 70,000 people here. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING OVER A CHEERING CROWD:

What dramatic moment here at Ellis Park. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many flags in one stadium. 

 

ELNA: And what did the crowd look like? Was it a mix of races? 

 

RUDOLF: It was a mixed crowd. Obviously, a majority was still white, but I mean, it was a mixed crowd. 

 

ELNA: Imagine a stadium filled to the brim with people. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING: …62,000 people that have crammed into the stadium. 

 

ELNA: It’s already vibrating with the energy of excited fans, with the colorful new flag of the country, and the Springbok green and gold. And then out of nowhere, a Boeing 747 drops over the stadium, almost too close.

 

[SOUND OF A 747 ENGINE ROARING]

 

RUDOLF: It came from this side over to that side. And, you know, you could hear the eruption of people. 

 

[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING]

 

ELNA: “Good luck, Bokke” — that’s another nickname for the team — was painted on the underside of the plane. 

 

RUDOLF: It was sort of another jaunt and another, sort of — I would say that it was maybe a commercial trick, but it worked. 

 

ELNA: It was a clever trick. And then, as if that wasn’t exciting enough, the new Black president steps out onto the field to greet the almost-entirely-white team, and he is wearing not just a team jersey, but captain Francois Pienaar’s number six. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING: 

Dr. Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa — fully clad in the rugby jersey with a number six on its back, of Francois Piennar — being introduced to the match officials of the day…

 

ELNA: The Springbok colors had almost been retired, but Mandela had pushed to keep them. So him wearing it now was a clear sign that he is the people’s president, regardless of who they used to cheer for. There’s even chanting for him from the crowd. “Nelson! Nelson!”

 

[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING “NELSON! NELSON! NELSON!…”] 

 

ELNA: Rodney, the 17-year-old who was planning to go to Pretoria to study, watched the game in a bar — his first-ever time, really, in one — surrounded by white people celebrating with them their sport. Now, supposedly, all of their sport. 

 

RODNEY: It was sort of like a public holiday. It was sort of like, “Leave everything that you do, and the nation should unite. 43 million people should unite behind the people that are on the pitch to defend our nation.”

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING OVER A CROWD CHEERING AND HORNS BLOWING:

…It seems like New Zealand will kick off, but what a — what an unbelievable, spectacular year in Johannesburg. 

 

MALE SOUTH AFRICAN CO-ANNOUNCER: 

I think it’s the whole theme of the thing, the vibes coming into the field. Everyone is so keen and full of — looking forward to something that nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Two evenly matched teams… 

 

ELNA: Then, like in any game, the national anthem gets played. When the new country needed an anthem to represent it, some people wanted to scrap the old apartheid song, “Die Stem,” completely. Instead, Mandela and others pushed for the anthem to be rewritten in the languages spoken by its many different cultural groups and tribes. In the end, it’s a mix of five languages representing different parts and people of South Africa. 

 

RODNEY: You could see the kind of emotions that comes with the singing of a national anthem. We were not used to singing the anthem. 

 

ELNA: Would you do me a great honor and hum or sing our anthem?

 

RODNEY [SINGING]: “Nkosi sikelel’ Afrika. Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo.”

 

RODNEY AND ELNA [SINGING TOGETHER]: “Yiva imitandazo yetu. Nkosi sikelela thina lusapho lwayo.”

 

ELNA: This moment gives me chills. I know it might seem cheesy now, and in some ways it is, but me — as a white person, sitting in Rodney’s house, reminiscing and singing the anthem with him about how God should bless South Africa — that kind of thing was not freely possible before 1994. And, in a way, it was not possible before the Rugby World Cup. 

 

RODNEY AND ELNA [SINGING TOGETHER]: “…O se boloke…o se boloke setjhaba sa heso. Setjhaba sa South Afrika…”

 

[SOUND OF A CHOIR QUIETLY SINGING “NKOSI SIKELEL’ IAFRIKA” UNDER RODNEY AND ELNA]

 

RODNEY [SINGING] “…South Afrika.” So. [ELNA LAUGHS] And if you look at this, you could see that the anthem — it’s not only raising the curtain for the rugby to start, but this anthem is calling upon the nation to unite. But also, the anthem was to tell the world that, “Welcome to South Africa, and we’re about to show you a thing or two on the pitch.” 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING OVER A CHEERING CROWD AS A WHISTLE BLOWS:

Well, what does New Zealand have in store for South Africa with a kickoff? It’s a short one, it doesn’t carry 10 meters…

 

ELNA: Now let’s get to the actual game part. The Springboks were up against the New Zealand All Blacks. You may know them. They’re famous for their intimidating players and performing the haka before every game. 

 

RODNEY: So I remember, we’re not the first to score a try.

 

ELNA: New Zealand scored first. 

 

RODNEY: So when you see the first try scored against you, it’s, it’s like, “No. I wonder if this is going to go through.” And I still remember they scored the second one again, before we even can. So your mood swings are high and low in the very same game, because the next moment you score that try, then the next moment they equalize. 

 

ELNA: South Africa jumped forward, but by full time, it was equal. 

 

[LIVELY FUNK MUSIC]

 

RODNEY: My heart was nearly choked when the final whistle was blow, and it was a tie. And remember here, we’re playing the All Blacks. And who, who approaches the All Blacks with a confidence? No. But we had, we had the warriors in the field.

 

ELNA: Rodney says it felt like the team was playing for the whole country, not just those in the stands. The game was pushed into extra time for the first time in a Rugby World Cup final. 

 

RODNEY: But in the end of the day, it was a glorious day for all of us as South Africans. 

 

ELNA: Because of that drop kick, hey? 

 

RODNEY: Because of that drop kick. 

 

ELNA: There were several drop kicks during the game. That’s when you let the ball bounce before kicking it up and over the goal posts, scoring three points. But the one Rodney and I are talking about was by Joel Stransky, just a few minutes before the end of extra time. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING: Back it comes to Stransky. Up goes the kick! [CROWD CHEERING] Stransky has kept his head!…

 

[FUNK MUSIC ENDS]

 

ELNA: Rudolf Straeuli and I drove on the Ellis Park Stadium grass, and he shows me where it all happened. 

 

RUDOLF: The winning moment was — I’ll show you. The drop goal was more or less from here. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING: That is it! The final whistle, and South Africa win this Rugby World Cup final by 15 points to 12, and what a dramatic finish…

 

RUDOLF: After the end whistle blew, we got together in a circle here and we prayed, just, you know, right — all this, yeah.

 

ELNA: Yeah.

 

RUDOLF: So it was quite powerful, all this, yeah. We went down on our knees. 

 

ELNA: The jubilation was not just in the stadium, but throughout the whole country, with people of all races hugging and cheering in ways they normally wouldn’t. The bar Rodney was in went wild. 

 

RODNEY: Beers were spilling all over — not, not intentionally, because now when the emotion is seizing you, whatever is next to you will just spill out of joy. And there was no time to quarrel with your neighbor. 

 

1995 NEWSCLIP WITH MALE SOUTH AFRICAN ANNOUNCER SPEAKING: They’re so delighted, and there will be parties tonight. 

 

ELNA: But it’s not just about that one game. Something shifted in the political and cultural mood of the day. 

 

JOHN: The truly important thing was that it was the consummation of a five-year task by Mandela to win over white South Africa, to persuade them that he was on their side, that he was a legitimate president, that democracy was OK, that it was OK for Black people and everybody to vote. And most of all, he achieved — through that World Cup — what was the central mission of his presidency, which was to consolidate the fragile young democracy. After that Rugby World Cup final, it was simply not possible that South Africa would go to war. It was simply not possible that a significant sector of the white population would rise up against Mandela’s democracy, because they would simply lack the support required among the white population at large. So that game — it should not be seen in isolation. I mean, Mandela had been working on this, had been — like I say — wooing white South Africa for five years now. If he hadn’t done all his preparatory work, if he hadn’t sent out conciliatory messages to white South Africans, then that Rugby World Cup would not have had anything like the same political effect. It’s not something that happened, you know, in isolation. It was the — sort of the culmination of a whole leadership process that Mandela had been very deliberately engaged in for five years. 

 

ELNA: Politically uniting groups of people that had been so deliberately divided by giving them voting rights and more equal opportunities is one thing. But actually getting people to feel equal, to consider each other on the same side — that shift is harder to make, and it has to start somewhere. 

 

The last 27 years of South Africa’s democracy haven’t been all smooth sailing. There are significant challenges in the country, and some now look at the “rainbow nation” narrative of the 90s as overly simplistic. It also shifted things for many people on a personal level. Remember Rodney, the teenager nervous about studying, now sitting in a bar with white people watching their sport? 

 

ELNA: You were getting ready to go to university in Pretoria? Did that moment change anything? 

 

RODNEY: It did. It did change. It brought a lot of confidence. You get to know that we are living together as a nation. White is a color, it’s not a human being. It gave me the confidence to say, “I’m going out to pursue my dream, and I cannot be stopped from achieving what — because my dream can only be achieved when I’m at a certain location.” I came to Pretoria, and pursued my studies. And after that, I started to work and live with white people. I’m living now in a community where my neighbors — back opposite, front opposite, left, right — are white people, people who are so kind at heart, kind at spirit, and kind with their own deeds. But then if you look, this personally — it gave me that confidence to say, “Surely there’s nothing to be scared of.” We no longer have what you call the so-called “white careers.” We no longer have the so-called “white locations.” We’re living as one and, sort of, the umbilical cord has been ripped off, and I’m free now. The sky is the limit. 

 

ELNA: Rodney’s son, Lungelo Nyathi, is about the same age as his dad was in 1995. We now chat to him about rugby. It’s quite a different conversation. For him, the decision to play rugby in school had nothing to do with politics and presidents. 

 

LUNGELO NYATHI:

It all started in grade five. My Afrikaans teacher saw that I was a bit taller than my peers, and then he recommended that I play rugby. I was not into it at first, but then [CHUCKLES] the girl that are sitting next to me said that she would come and watch me if I played. So [CHUCKLES] obviously, I then decided to play rugby. 

 

ELNA: And yet, even for Lungelo, there’s something special here. 

 

ELNA: So me and your father have been talking a lot about the past and rugby in 1995, what rugby has meant for the country and for race relations. What do you think about all of that? Does it ever cross your mind? 

 

LUNGELO: Not really. Maybe one — but the time that I really thought about it was when I was just scrolling on Instagram one day and I came across this quote. I don’t know who came up with the quote, but it said that, “If it wasn’t for sport, we would still be having world wars.” And this quote really said a lot because of what sport — how sport unifies us all. Yeah, like, especially when I think about the teams that I’ve played in. Sometimes when I look at those guys, I’m like, if it was just a normal day, I don’t think I’ll ever talk to this person. But then on the field we’re best friends, and it’s — it’s quite shocking. Yeah, that — that’s what I appreciate most about the sport, the way it brings people together and how it unifies us. 

 

ELNA: Lungelo is aware of this, how sport unites now. But so was the man at the center of the story. In 2000, Nelson Mandela spoke about the power of sport in a speech at the Laureus World Sports Awards. 

 

2000 NEWSCLIP OF NELSON MANDELA SPEAKING AT THE LAUREUS WORLD SPORTS AWARDS:

Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.

 

ELNA: For the people of South Africa, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was more than just a sporting event. The moment mattered for my country, and in some ways, it changed us. 

 

[UPBEAT SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]

 

IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Elna Schutz and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. 

 

Next week on the podcast: In 2003, Honey Thaljieh co-founded the first ever Palestinian women’s national football team. But representing Palestine in international competition was not going to be easy.

 

HONEY THALJIEH:

To tell you how this affected our results, our achievement — of course it did, because how can we meet in one place, on one stadium, when girls from Ramallah and Jerusalem and Jericho and Bethlehem can’t meet in one place without being delayed at checkpoints and borders? But also, like, the infrastructure — you can’t even build a normal football pitch, because then you need to have the authorization from the Israeli authorities. You can’t build on areas, because it’s split between Area B and A and C: A for the Palestinians, B it’s mixed, and C for the Israeli — it is so complicated at all level. Like, it’s even, like, hard to — to, like, for people to understand it. 

 

IBTIHAJ: That’s next week, on The Long Game

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