Nelson Mandela’s moment of transcendent reconciliation

Very occasionally, sport truly matters. In 1995, South African rugby gave us a moment of true grace.

Nelson Mandela congratulates the team captain after South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup in June 1995. Photo: Getty.

It was the first time I encountered real hatred, personal and yet indiscriminate. Her expression – cold, hard and impervious to anything I said or did – continues to haunt me. Staying in a stranger’s house in northern South Africa in 1992, a black servant – let’s use the honest word – handed me breakfast over a kitchen table. Though my thanks were met with a nod of habit, her eyes transmitted a different message: you and your kind, you are the problem, you are the enemy, you keep me here, you force this indignity upon me. However understandable, even inevitable, her feelings were, I’ve never forgotten how bad I felt.

My hosts were not rich but they were white and apartheid allowed moderately well-off white people to enjoy an extraordinary standard of living. That comfort came at a price, as I learned that day. I was 15, on a school cricket tour, and my teammates and I were billeted with the families of our opponents. Until that point in my life, if someone took against me, I’d always assumed that my behaviour must have been to blame. I can see now that this presumption, the feeling of being in control of one’s social destiny, is the ultimate luxury, an accident of fortune. But I knew that morning that I had done nothing wrong, failed nowhere.

So it hit me hard, that glare. Hatred doesn’t quite capture it. I knew that no amount of genuine concern and kindness on my part, still less charm or good manners, would make any difference to her opinion of me. I was hated because of my skin colour and the associations and assumptions that followed from that fact.

One deeply uncomfortable presumption was compounded by a second. That week, in the rugby-playing heartlands of Transvaal – where well-schooled manners, sporting talent and a competitive self-confidence count for a great deal – I felt oddly over-welcomed by some white hosts. It was as though they had decided to think well of me just from the look of me, not because I had earned it. This was unsettling, too. The presumption from one side that I was the wrong kind of person was not ameliorated by the presumption from another that I was the right kind of person. Instead, I felt pincered by the double prejudice.

A more subtly dispiriting experience quickly followed. We were given a guided tour of a well-known South African rugby ground, the epicentre of the white sporting establishment. I remember a plush boardroom with a huge mahogany table. Framed photos hung on the walls: some portraits were of great players, others of middle-aged administrators with slicked-back grey-black hair and dark-rimmed spectacles. The scent of cigar smoke came up from the thick carpet. What kinds of conversations had taken place in this room, I wondered? The spirit of the place was elitist and clubby in all the wrong ways. “Are you one of us?” it asked. “Do you belong here?” I did not. The whole atmosphere suggested a preoccupation with keeping out the “wrong” people, clinging on to control.

That was 1992. Though Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, his presence was nowhere to be felt in those rooms. Though always proudly competitive on the pitch, the culture of South African rugby remained intricately bound up with the institutions and power structures of the old order. That wasn’t true of all apartheid sports. Some sporting communities were instinctively more progressive than political circumstances revealed. That was not the case with South African rugby. Indeed, I would have been hard pressed in 1992 to think of a sporting culture anywhere less likely to embody the redemptive power of sport.

And yet, three years later, South African rugby gave modern sport a rare moment of grace and transcendence: Nelson Mandela standing next to the then Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, and holding the World Cup trophy at the final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.

Where many of his colleagues in the African National Congress despised rugby and all it stood for, Mandela saw that it could act as a metaphor for a new South Africa. When he pulled on the Springbok jersey, Mandela found the image that perfectly captured his political message of liberal reconciliation: if this can be achieved here, in rugby, it can be achieved anywhere. It was as if Mandela had walked into that boardroom, where I had sensed only divisiveness and exclusion, and turned the culture inside out.

Anyone with a reflective temperament who dedicates a substantial chunk of their life to sport eventually acknowledges an uncomfortable truth. Much of what sustained us when we were inside the bubble – results, tables, averages, pecking orders, who’s up, who’s down – is of little wider importance. Yes, it is important that you compete wholly, that you give unsparingly of yourself, but only because sport played without passion and conviction loses the validity of gladiatorial authenticity. But that your team won or lost last week, last month, last year? Like actors, athletes orchestrate a necessary suspension of disbelief.

It remains a play, that is all.

Very occasionally, however, sport does matter. This cannot be faked or arranged. It requires a sporting narrative to intersect with a wider social and political narrative – perhaps even for the sport to complete the story in some way. In hosting the rugby World Cup, the old white man’s game, Mandela saw the opportunity for a unique kind of triumph. If only “his Springboks” – what a concept in itself – could win on the pitch. And they did.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I met that woman again. I like to believe there would be a different expression in her eyes, that the rage of the apartheid era will have softened. But I suspect not. Sport, even politics, can only do so much.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)