Mihir Bose: Why Nelson Mandela had a unique understanding about the power of sport

Nelson Mandela may not have been a professional sportsman but his understanding of sport surpassed that of most high profile sporting stars. Mandela knew how sport could be used for wider political and social purposes. In his long years in prison, as he closely studied his white oppressors, particularly the Afrikaners, he began to appreciate that sport in general and rugby, in particular, had an extraordinary hold on the white nation.

He also realised that since the rise of international sport in the 19th century white South Africa had used sport to drive forward its hideous racial agenda. In this, of course, it had been helped by its white friends in Britain, Australia and New Zealand who saw nothing wrong in accepting that white South Africans were racially superior and should only play with other white men. This meant it was perfectly acceptable for the All Blacks to exclude Maoris from their team when they played South Africa or England to drop Duleep from its cricket team because he was an Indian.

As Mandela emerged from prison determined to build his rainbow nation he decided he could also use the same sporting weapon white South Africa had used with such devastating effect for so long. The difference was he would not divide society but unite it, not use sport to bolster apartheid but smash it and for the first time in South African history usher in a normal society.

Much has been made about the moment in 1995 when South Africa won the rugby world cup and Mandela, wearing a springbok jersey, hailed the victory. The symbolism of that moment cannot be overestimated.

As South Africa’s President he could have turned up for the final in a suit or, if he wanted to rub it in for the largely white crowd, in traditional African garb. Instead Mandela wore a springbok rugby jersey as he joined in the celebrations.

Under apartheid the springbok emblem was reserved for whites and South Africa’s non-white races had always hated the emblem seeing it as a symbol of oppression. But Mandela in a special concession had allowed the rugby authorities to retain the springbok emblem. In contrast cricket had discarded it with the unified cricket team called Proteas. Now, by wearing a jersey with the springbok emblem, Mandela was showing that for all the wrongs the apartheid regime had done he could forgive and forget.

The largely white crowd was so moved that they lustily sang “Nelson, Nelson.” For a sporting crowd in its moment of greatest triumph to shout the name of a politician is remarkable. What made it astonishing was that even five years before that not only was Mandela in prison but South African newspapers could not even publish his picture. Many white South Africans did not even know what he looked like.

It was four years before that historic moment, at a time when many doubted if a non-racial South Africa was at all possible, that I first met Mandela. It was over coffee in his Soweto home that I became aware of the revolutionary way he saw sport and his plans for using sport to help create his new rainbow nation.

The meeting took place in Johannesburg on June 30, 1991. The previous day had seen the birth of a unified cricket board for South Africa. For the first time since South Africa made its Test debut in 1889 it had a cricket body that could truly claim to represent all the races of the country.

Then on that Sunday morning, quite unexpectedly, Nelson Mandela summoned Sunil Gavaskar, one of the guests who had flown in from India, to his Soweto home. I was in Sunil’s party, having played a small part in bringing him to Johannesburg. When Ali Backer, the head of the new cricket body, drew up the list of those to be invited for the launch he had no problems with cricketers from England, Australia or even Gary Sobers. While South Africa had never played the West Indies, West Indian cricketers were well known and Bacher knew Sobers personally. But he knew nobody from India and turned to me for help.

I suggested Gavaskar, who was not only my old schoolmate from St. Xavier’s in Bombay, but had just retired and held the record for most Test runs.

As we made our way to Mandela’s Soweto home the roads were eerily quiet. For several miles there were no cars on the highway except our convoy. Then, just as we turned off the main highway to Soweto and neared his home, suddenly a Ford Cortina zoomed ahead of us as if it had been waiting. It now escorted us to the great man’s home.

“That is Mandela’s security car,” said the man who was driving us, ‘they watch every car that approaches his house.” Sure enough, as we turned into the driveway of Mandela’s home, the car so positioned itself that we had to stop. The electric gates opened to let the Cortina in, two men got out, our credentials were checked then the gates opened to let us in to the palatial home that Winnie Mandela had built while Nelson Mandela was in prison. It would have looked impressive anywhere. In Soweto it looked incongruous – hidden behind high walls, it looked like a house from the white suburbs of Johannesburg transplanted to the township.

But then everything about this meeting with Mandela was strange. This was one of the most momentous weeks in his life. The ban on the ANC having been lifted it was about to hold its first open session in South Africa for 30 years. That session was to confirm Mandela as President.

The previous week the media had reported that Mandela had his hands full trying to cope with the bitter divisions between the old guard so long in exile and the young activists who had been carrying on the struggle against apartheid within the country. Before the meeting was organised we had been told he was far too busy preparing for the historic Congress to see anybody, certainly not some cricket people.

But here we were being led up a small flight of stairs to a room dominated by a huge oil painting of Robert Mugabe on one wall. In the middle was a long V shaped table filled with the gifts Mandela had acquired from his various foreign travels since his release.

It looked like the office of a company chief executive, although when Mandela arrived, dressed in a tie and a jumper, it became more of a throne room. His associates, who had been milling round in the room, withdrew to a distance whispering softly Madiba, father, the term invariably used to refer to him. As he began talking it became obvious that he quite liked using the royal we, reflecting his own royal roots.

We had been told before the meeting that Mandela would not talk politics and that we should not ask him political questions. But once the pleasantries were over and coffee was served it was clear Mandela was more than happy to talk about sporting politics and how politicians can use sports. Without much prompting he said, ‘De Klerk [then President] has made it clear in our conversations “Look if you would make it possible for All Blacks to come here, then we can smash the system.”‘

Mandela himself had never played cricket but he told the story of watching the Australians paying a Test match in Durban in 1950. “Yes, we watched it from the segregated stands and, of course, we cheered the Australians. The South Africans had made a big score. We were cheering [Neil] Harvey who was playing very well for the Australians but we were both nervous and excited. As he took Australia to the South African score we were very scared. What if he gets bowled out? Then Harvey came to our segregated stand and spoke to us. But I didn’t speak to him. They would have kicked us out if we had tried to approach him.”

As a boy growing up in Bombay I too had hero worshipped Neil Harvey. But unlike Mandela I could thrust my autograph book in front of Harvey without fear of reprisals. However Mandela was not bitter.

Since his release cricket had figured in his travels. Bob Hawke, the Australian Premier mentioned it and so did John Major when Mandela came to London. Major had asked Mandela whether he would allow South Africans back into cricket. “You know,” said Mandela, “Mr Major seemed more interested in cricket than the issues.” As he recounted the story Mandela was overcome with laughter.

Mandela knew that he could not move too far ahead on the sporting front because of the young radicals in the ANC. “On our side we have people who are extremists who want not only that sport must be normalised. They argue that there can be no normal sport in a racial society. That is true. But at the same time sport is sport and quite different from politics. If sportsmen of this country take steps to remove the colour bar then we must take that into account.”

None of us wanted our conversation with Mandela to end but we had been told he had very little time. He had chatted much longer than his minders wanted. However as we were being ushered out Gavaskar suddenly piped up, “Sir, can I have memento of this visit?”

Most of the journalists there reeled back in shock, fearing Gavaskar had committed a dreadful faux pas. But Mandela just nodded, went out of the room and leaning on the stairs called out to Winnie. He re-emerged with a key and went to a locked door behind the huge conference table. “That,” whispered one of his associates, “is where he keeps all he presents he has received on his travels.” He quickly remerged saying, “I thought I might give you the belt Joe Frazier has given me. But I would like to keep it.” Mandela, a keen boxer in his youth, could clearly not part with such a gift. But he did present Gavaskar with a book to which he added a gracious inscription.

Then the electric gates opened and we were back in the heat and dust of Soweto.

The conversation with Mandela lasted no more than half an hour but it revealed that the man who was to lead his nation out of apartheid clearly saw how sport could be used to bring about change. It would be another three years, 27 April 1994, before the first democratic elections were held with Mandela, himself, voting for the first time.

But long before that South African sport once ostracised was back in international favour. Starting in 1991 South Africa played cricket with India and West Indies, teams it had always shunned, took part in the 1992 cricket World Cup and the Barcelona Olympics. As Mandela negotiated the transfer of power he used sport to reassure the whites that if they agreed to regard all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour as equals, it would not mean the end of their way of life.

Mandela’s sporting role also involved two bids by South Africa to host the World Cup. The first for the 2006 World Cup ended in failure. This was largely due to Charles Dempsey, the Scot who had migrated to New Zealand and represented Oceania on the FIFA executive. Dempsey, who had originally supported England, decided to abstain on the final round which allowed Germany to beat South Africa by one vote, Dempsey having told the Germans that he would abstain if England was eliminated. This was reassuring to the Germans who knew that such an abstention would give them victory.

Dempsey is also the only man I know who was not charmed by Mandela. Indeed, when on the day of the vote Mandela rang him at about 5 in the morning he got most upset and complained vociferously.

The South Africans again wheeled out Mandela when they bid for the 2010 World Cup. Now with only African nations allowed to bid for the competition, South Africa was determined to have it. I was made vividly aware of Mandela’s role on 14 May 2004, 24 hours before the FIFA executive met to vote on the 2010 bid.

I was just outside a third floor suite of Zurich’s Grand Dolder Hotel, which is in the hills above the headquarters of FIFA. Mandela and many of the top brass of FIFA were staying there. As I waited I saw Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, then President of South Africa, emerge from their suite in the company of Jack Warner, then a FIFA Vice President and a key player. Warner, having for so long been warm to South Africa, had turned hostile. A few weeks before I had met him in London and he was scathing about the South Africans and very warm to Morocco. Now he was so hostile to South Africa, he was even refusing to return calls from the South African bid team. Everyone knew how crucial Warner was. He controlled three votes on the twenty-four man executive and could swing the election.

South Africa had sent Bishop Desmond Tutu to Warner’s country Trinidad to hold a special mass to humour him. But even that had not quite done the trick. With a day to go the trump card had to be played and Mandela and Mbeki flew into Zurich to meet Warner. What these men discussed has never been revealed but I caught up with Warner in the corridor immediately after the meeting. When I asked him who was going to win, Morocco or South Africa, he said, “Who knows, anything can happen.” Then he gave a big smile suggesting that the Mandela trump card had worked.

Until that moment the Moroccans were very sure that they had secured Warner’s votes. They had spent millions on their campaign employing so many experts from all over the world that theirs was almost an ‘outsourced’ bid. It was difficult to find a Moroccan in the bid team. The Moroccan bid prediction was that they would beat South Africa by fourteen votes to ten.

But, the next day, it was South Africa which won 14-10. It was very clear for whom Warner and his colleagues had voted. That afternoon, as the South Africans held a celebratory lunch at the Grand Dolder, Mandela duly raised a glass to his new friends. For Mandela, the man who was nearest to a modern day Gandhi, to be forced to ‘schmooze’ Warner shows that, when your country wants the World Cup, you have to take any road you can. The trick here is to pretend you are travelling on a high road talking of how well-equipped you are to hold the World Cup and all the good it will do both for the country and the world. But the real journey is along the low road making deals with FIFA executive members, however dubious they may be.

However despite this use of Mandela the South Africans were not sure of winning. They were keen Mandela should not be present when the result was being announced worried that if the decision went against South Africa it would be humiliating for Mandela. So it was only after Sepp Blatter announced that 2010 would go to South Africa that Mandela was brought down from the Grand Dolder to the Zurich conference hall where the decision was announced and given the World Cup Trophy to hold.

Nearly a decade earlier Mandela had held up the Webb Ellis trophy. But that was to proclaim a rugby win. In Zurich he was acclaiming another kind of sporting triumph, that South Africa could stage the finals of the one sport that unites the whole world. The rugby triumph was a gesture by Mandela to reassure his own white people that South Africa could build a rainbow nation. Holding aloft the football World Cup was a gesture by Mandela to the world that Africans were not inferior to other races when it came to staging major international sport competitions. Other politicians may talk of the power of sport but in the modern era only Mandela has both understood the great reach of sport and used it to such dramatic effect. It is this that makes him unique.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose