It’s difficult to say which is more unbelievable — that the University of Pittsburgh once had realistic aspirations of winning a national football championship, the Democrats controlled Pennsylvania’s state House of Representatives, that Nelson Mandela was in a South African prison and the U.S. president didn’t want to see him released unless it was in a box — or the way in which all of these realities collided during the summer of 1986.
That year, this country experienced the most heated campus protests since the Vietnam War. Across the United States, students rallied in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid racial policies and urging their universities to divest from companies doing business in the country. At the time, Congress was debating a proposal for severe economic sanctions against South Africa, a nation where more than 80 percent of the population had no political or financial power.
If the protests at Pitt were more heated than those at other schools, there was a reason for that. At the time, its faculty included the one man who had done more to combat apartheid than anyone not dead or in a cage. By his very presence on campus, Dennis Brutus, a poet by calling and an activist by the circumstance of being born dark-skinned in a country that automatically and legally relegated him to subhuman status, thrust the University of Pittsburgh to the forefront of a national apartheid debate during the summer of 1986. A quarter-century earlier, Brutus had led the campaign to have South Africa excluded from the Olympic Games, an expulsion that lasted until after Mandela’s release in 1990.
Brutus, who had busted rocks on Robben Island with Mandela back in the 1960s, galvanized the protests at Pitt, where students built a shantytown on the William Pitt Student Union lawn, disrupted trustees meetings and picketed at the home of school President Wesley Posvar, all to agitate for Pitt to withdraw funds from companies with interests in South Africa at a faster pace than they already were.
When a university official hinted that protesters should be satisfied because Pitt was divesting from companies doing business in South Africa faster than all but 10 other U.S. universities, state Rep. K. Leroy Irvis, the first black man to serve as speaker for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives and a University of Pittsburgh trustee, asked “Why do we want to be number one in football, but we’re satisfied with being number 11 in divestment?”
The summer might have been hot in Pittsburgh’s university neighborhood of Oakland in 1986, but divestment was made moot by the end of September, even before leaves along the city’s riverbanks changed colors, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over a veto by Ronald Reagan, who had tarred Mandela as a communist – the worst epithet this nation’s 40th president could muster – and had tried to deport Brutus to South Africa.
As most of the sporting world rolls this month through another Rugby World Cup – an event that trails only the Summer Olympics and Soccer World Cup in stadium attendance – it’s worth casting some historical perspective on the 1995 tournament, which remains the most important single sporting event since two Cro-Magnons stood at the mouth of a cave and decided to see who could be first to drag his knuckles down to the far tree.
Although the movie “Invictus,” which covers some of this ground, wasn’t a documentary and it got made in the United States only because Morgan Freeman wanted to play Nelson Mandela in a movie, but it hewed more closely to the historical facts than Hollywood “Based on a True Story” tales usually do.
I’ve read “Playing the Enemy,” the basis for “Invictus,” watched the 1995 Rugby World Cup final on pay-per-view, saw Brutus closely during the U.S. anti-apartheid protests, and played rugby myself, so I know, better than most Americans, the importance of the first major sporting event to be held in post-apartheid South Africa. The 1995 tournament and Mandela’s political manipulation of it probably prevented a level of violence that would have made Zimbabwe’s bloody transfer of power from its white minority to black majority look like a church picnic. Rugby’s status in South African white society made a relatively peaceful transition possible.
To be sure, South Africa’s exclusion from the Olympic Games – in a campaign that got then-future University of Pittsburgh Professor Dennis Brutus chucked into prison – rankled the white South African population. So did the lost opportunities for its athletes to compete against their peers from nations that refused to play in South Africa or entertain them in their own countries. But losing the Springboks, the national rugby team, stung them worst of all.
To Afrikaners, Springbok rugby was a point of cultural honor. Rugby was, and is, the sport of white South Africa – the black population gravitates toward soccer. South Africa clung grimly to its aspirations of international rugby, and international rugby clung grimly to the Springboks’ tradition, for 20 years after it was excluded from the Olympics. New Zealand’s 1976 tour of South Africa sparked a boycott of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics by 28 African nations. Even after that controversial tour, rugby teams continued to compete against the Springboks for another eight years – including a trip in 1981 to play the United States in a match held a day before and more than 150 miles from the originally-scheduled time and place to thwart expected protesters. Not surprisingly, attendance was sparse.
By 1985, a year before apartheid and Dennis Brutus heated the University of Pittsburgh’s summer, the Springboks were mothballed until after Mandela won his freedom.
In 1993, South Africa named a 26-year-old flanker named Francois Pienaar as the team’s captain. Pienaar, who resembled Matt Damon rather less than he did the very model of a modern Afrikaner, would make 29 appearances for the Springboks, all as team captain. Rugby is different than most American sports in that captain is not a ceremonial position. Because action in rugby rarely stops and never for very long, the team captain makes most tactical decisions for the entire team with little or no input from the coach.
In South Africa, though, a Springboks team captain is also a symbol. And for more than 80 percent of the nation’s population, that symbol was not a positive one. Pienaar, and the Springboks themselves, were physical representations of apartheid, every bit as much as the police and army who enforced it. Mandela saw that as an opportunity, and enlisted the young rugby player as a co-conspirator in helping the Rainbow Nation heal its wounds.
Mandela knew what rugby in general, and the Springboks in particular, meant to white South Africa – the very people who would be most likely to react to the loss of political power with violence. The sport, and particularly the 1995 Rugby World Cup, provided him with an opportunity to let the nation’s racial minority keep some pride and get the entire country united in a common cause.
Few would have faulted Mandela if he hadn’t cared whether South African’s whites were allowed to keep any pride or dignity when they certainly hadn’t offered him the same courtesy 30 years earlier. That was exactly the point. Mandela was offering reconciliation, not retribution. And it would be successful precisely because, arguably, no one on this side of the grass had been more grievously wronged by apartheid than he had. No one had moral authority to cry out for revenge if Mandela wouldn’t demand it.
He supported South Africa’s bid to play host of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and even blocked efforts by the country’s newly-appointed black-led sports ministry to jettison the Springboks’ nickname. The sole change would be the addition of a protea flower to the team logo, which depicted a leaping springbok.
If Mandela saw the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a tool for uniting South Africa under his leadership, the International Rugby Board enabled – either deliberately or accidentally – those efforts. In newspaper articles at the time, the Sunday Times of London reported that England’s 1994 tour of South Africa, which began only days after the country’s first all-race elections that made Mandela president, would be a dry run for the big tournament a year later. Unspoken, but strongly implied, in that statement was a threat that if the England tour was marred by violence, presumably by whites smarting over the loss of political power, a new host would be found for the following year’s World Cup.
On the pitch, South Africa split the two tests with England, with the Springboks claiming a victory in the second match after England’s lopsided win in the first. When that first match shows up in the movie “Invictus,” black South Africans are shown cheering for England – another thing the movie gets right. It would take some urging by Mandela, a series of public relations appearances in black townships and selection of wing Chester Williams as the first black Springbok before the entire Rainbow Nation would call the national team its own.
When the tournament opened, it became apparent that the host was on a collision course with New Zealand, pre-tournament favorites and the world’s perennial top-ranked team. Attention on the All Blacks – known for the hardarsing style of a forward pack that included team captain Sean Fitzpatrick, flanker Josh Kronfeld and number eight Zinzan Brooke – came to fall on a 26-year-old wing named Jonah Lomu, who combined the size of an NFL lineman with the speed of an NFL wide receiver. Lomu tore through outmanned opposite numbers who could match him neither for size nor pace. After demolishing England with four tries in the World Cup semifinals, English captain Will Carling, who would one day be romantically linked with Princess Diana, called Lomu “a freak.”
Heading into the final, New Zealand was a heavy favorite, behind Lomu, one of the greatest forward packs ever assembled, and, to a lesser extent, the All Blacks’ mystique. But the observers – including myself – hadn’t counted on a solid match plan well executed by Pienaar, the boot of Joel Stransky, and a nation united, black and white, for the first time.
Or a convenient case of food poisoning that afflicted most of the All Blacks squad in the last few days before the final match on June 24. Several players said they would have been unavailable had the match been held a day earlier. Although this episode was left out of “Invictus,” a waitress named “Suzie” holds a place among New Zealand’s conspiracy theorists somewhat akin to multiple shooters on the grassy knoll, desert soundstages used to film the Moon landing or accusations of controlled demolitions at the World Trade Center mean to Americans.
Lomu finished his two trips to the Rugby World Cup with a record 15 tries – the rugby equivalent of touchdowns. But he didn’t have any in the biggest match of his life. Neither did anyone else. In the first international rugby match to go into extra time, the two fly halves, Stransky for South Africa and Andrew Mehrtens for New Zealand, engaged in an epic duel with the Springboks’ kicker slotting a drop kick in the final minutes to secure the William Webb Ellis Cup, presented by Mandela to Pienaar.
Both men wore Springboks number 6 jerseys to the postmatch ceremony. For Pienaar, the shirt was part of his uniform. Mandela, however, wore across his back the last remaining symbol of a system that had stolen nearly three decades of his life. Only now, as a stadium filled mostly with white South Africans changing his name, it represented his triumph over apartheid.
It wouldn’t be long before Pienaar had his opportunity to exercise his position as Mandela’s co-conspirator in uniting South Africa. Almost before he had time to fully catch his breath in what had been, to that date, the longest rugby match ever played, a reporter asked him what it was like to have had 63,000 people cheering for South Africa.
“We didn’t have 63,000 South Africans behind us. We had 42 million South Africans behind us, Pienaar replied, referring first to the approximate capacity of Ellis Park, then to the approximate population of South Africa.
It’s somehow fitting that the greatest moment of Nelson Mandela’s life took place on a rugby pitch, because he was a rugby man by temperament, if not by athletic passion.
On the diagram of sports evolution, rugby – which was invented, according to legend, when William Webb Ellis picked up a soccer ball and began to run with it – occupies the space in sports evolution between soccer, and the sport that we call football but is known as gridiron everywhere else. But the two sports are wildly different in how they reward effort. Soccer is an all-or-nothing venture, with no prizes for coming close. You either score or you don’t, and progress is measured only in goals.
In rugby, victory can be secured through incremental advances. A back row forward picks up the ball from behind the scrum and advances a few meters beyond the gain line. A centre back breaks through an opening in the defense and picks up 15 meters. The fly halfback kicks into touch 50 meters downfield. Eventually, after enough incremental progress, you’re in position to score three points on a drop kick or by a penalty kick, or a five-point try.
If Mandela regarded stick-and-ball sports at all – he was a runner and boxer in school – before his long imprisonment it would have been as a soccer player or fan. But if Mandela hadn’t learned to embrace the principle of incremental progress, he couldn’t have survived 27 years in a cell without succumbing to despair. He might have gone into prison as a soccer man, but came out as a rugby man. That said, the danger of being satisfied with incremental progress is in becoming satisfied with incremental progress.
When the ball carrier is tackled in rugby union – the style played at the 1995 World Cup – he has to give up possession, ideally in such a way that a teammate can pick it up and advance it toward the goal. In an interview a I did with Brutus a few years before his death in 2009 – almost exactly two weeks after the movie “Invictus” was released – he expressed disappointment that the political power secured with negotiations following Mandela’s release has yet to translate into economic power and that the promise of equality following the 1995 Rugby World Cup was never quite realized.
In effect, no one had picked up the ball after Mandela, then 81, declined to seek a second term as president in 1999.
Mandela’s success as president stemmed, in so many ways, from a willingness to forgive his oppressors. But the power of forgiveness has limits. By the time Mandela had been elected president of their nation, Brutus had been living for a decade in the United States, a country where black people have legal but not practical equality. Brutus had spent much of his time in this country fighting for economic and social fairness. And he knew the shift from legal equality to practical equality doesn’t require only forgiveness from those oppressed, but also demands justice against the oppressors.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup was an inspirational story about how sports can be a force for unification, even for healing a nation’s grievous wounds. But it’s easy to forget the one thing that Brutus understood implicitly. It was supposed to have been a beginning, not an ending.
Cover photo: South African captain Francois Pienaar, pictured with Nelson Mandela ©AFP/Getty Images (source: www.insidethegames.biz)
Photo: Nelson Mandela (while imprisoned on Robben Island 1974) by Jürgen Schadeberg