The 1995 Rugby World Cup (Fall 2012)

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. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. (Mandela)

Today when many people think of sports, they think of overpaid athletes who are always in the public eye for a negative reason; sex scandals, drug use, shooting themselves in the leg with their own gun at a club, whatever reason it may be, it always seems to be negative. It’s like sports serve no other goal today than to entertain the masses. However, in the events leading up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Nelson Mandela viewed sport as a way to unite post-apartheid South Africa. He felt that a way to ease the tensions between the whites and blacks in South Africa was to have them come together over a common goal: winning the Rugby World Cup. While winning the world cup was a great moment in South African history, it was more of a symbol for unity and moving forward in the country. Where once there was a country divided by segregation and hatred, now stood a country united as one. This paper will examine the impact of the 1995 Rugby World Cup on the nation of South Africa. Specifically looking at it through the lenses of three history forces: politics and government with the apartheid in South Africa, personal and group identities with the Springbok rugby team and the people of South Africa, and the role of specific individuals with Nelson Mandela.

Technically speaking the term apartheid wasn’t introduced until 1948 when the Nationalist party won election in South Africa (Boddy-Evans). However, like we have learned in this class you have to look farther into the past and see how these conditions have developed over many years. It’s not like everything was happy and perfect in South Africa prior to 1948 and then all of a sudden the Nationalist party takes over and there is segregation and racism. Like many African nations, South Africa went through imperialism and control from European nations during the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s; for South Africans they dealt with control by both the Dutch and the British ("United Nations Cyberschoolbus"). Then throughout the 1900s leading up to the creation of the apartheid system black South Africans lost political and many other rights and were heavily discriminated against. ("United Nations Cyberschoolbus"). When looking at this compared to the history of the world, this is not the first time that a group of people in a country were discriminated against because of their race. This same thing happened with the Indian people being controlled by the British and eventually the blacks in America. One direct result of the discrimination of the blacks in South Africa during the early 1900s was the creation of the African National Congress in 1912 ("Essortment: your source for knowledge"). As noted in “History of the African National Congress, 1912-1990” this organization/political party was “designed to promote the rights and freedoms of the African people.” Throughout the course of apartheid the African National Congress (ANC) attempted a non-violent approach to protesting the discrimination of blacks in South Africa; similar to what Gandhi attempted in India to oppose the British. However, realizing that their non-violent approach wasn’t having as much success as they would have hoped, the ANC decided to become more aggressive in their defiance to the discrimination; sparking violence between the two sides ("Essortment: your source for knowledge"). One of the main leaders of the African National Congress who played a huge part in their opposition of apartheid was Nelson Mandela. Mandela constantly fought for the rights of blacks in South Africa until he was arrested in 1964 and sent to Robben Island (Smitha).

Another important aspect to look at when examining the 1995 Rugby World Cup is the role of the Springbok rugby team and the citizens of South Africa. Normally when you think of sports teams you think of a city, or a state, or the players, but for the blacks and whites in South Africa the Springbok rugby team represented a lot more than the country of South Africa. During the age of imperialism when the British took control of South Africa they began to impose many parts of their culture on the South Africans—including the sport of rugby (Black and Nauright). In Rugby and the South African Nation by David R. Black and John Nauright, they stated that in South Africa sports, but rugby in general “became central cultural elements in the emergence and maintenance of geographies of exclusion and division that conditioned the entrenchment of divergent sporting cultures among spatially divided groups” (23). In other words the sport of rugby worked as a dividing tool between the controlling upper-class whites and the lower-class blacks. The Springbok rugby team was the pride and joy of the whites in South Africa; they viewed it as their national past time. However, for the blacks “it was the brutish, alien pastime of a brutish, alien people” (Carlin 40). Which is why many considered the Springbok rugby team “a metaphor for apartheid’s crushing brutality” (42). The team represented white South African supremacy and for that reason many black South Africans did not support the Springboks; they enjoyed seeing them lose. As you can see, rugby during this time of apartheid was the furthest thing from unifying South Africans; it divided them. Eventually, however, apartheid and the racist views of the white South Africans led to a negative effect on their most prized sport. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s South African began to be banned from international play, upsetting many in the country (Black and Nauright). These sanctions would later turn out to be very useful for Nelson Mandela in his quest to unite all South Africans.

As stated by John Carlin in his book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, after his release from prison in February 1990, the now seventy-one year old Mandela had a goal in mind; that goal being to unite all South Africans as one. Being wrongly imprisoned for twenty-six would cause most people to want to seek revenge, but Nelson Mandela knew that the problems that plagued South Africa would not be solved through violence and retaliation. He knew that he had to work directly with those who initially put him in prison to be able to get anything done, and that is exactly what he did after being elected president of South Africa in 1994 (8). One thing that Mandela knew was how much the Springbok team meant to the whites of South Africa and how upset they were at the banning of the team from playing in international events. So, shortly after being elected president he came up with a brilliant way to ease the tensions in the country. He thought that the upcoming Rugby World Cup “might present him with an opportunity to win [the whites] hearts” (16). The biggest obstacle for Mandela in this quest was to get the blacks to support the Springboks as well; many blacks in South Africa still did not want to support the team that still represented apartheid to them. However, Nelson Mandela realized the power of sports to unite people. With the excitement of their newly elected leader and the first World Cup South Africa was allowed to compete in, the people of South Africa seemed to come together in supporting the Springboks, and the events of the1995 Rugby World Cup proved to be something only Hollywood could have written.

Playing the reigning world champions the first match of the world cup would have been a tough task for any team, but for the Springbok players-many of which had never participated in international play- the task was extremely steep. However, the stars were aligned that day and South Africa upset the defending champions Australia. South Africa continued to dominate pool play and eventually made it to the knockout stage. There they faced any extremely tough match against France where they narrowly won 19-15; this victory then set up a historic championship match up against the heavily favored New Zealand team. If the match against Australia seemed like a steep task, winning the championship match against New Zealand-who many considered the best team in the world at the time-seemed almost impossible. Like Nelson Mandela himself once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Well it just so happens that on June 24th, 1995 the Springboks got it done; they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup and accomplished the first step in Nelson Mandela’s goal to unite the country.

“We didn’t have 62,000 fans behind us. We had 43 million South Africans” (Carlin 242). This was Springbok captain Francois Pienaar’s response to a television reporter’s question about the fans in the stadium that day. His response symbolizes everything that Nelson Mandela hoped to accomplish with the 1995 Rugby World Cup—a united South Africa. While it was a great thing that South Africa won the world cup and united the country in that moment, the real question was how would the country be after the high of winning the world cup faded away. According to John Carlin South Africa “became a country that had the same challenges as others in similar economic circumstances: how to deliver housing for the poor, how to combat violent crime, how to fight AIDS” (257). Although South Africa now faced the challenges of many other countries, breaking down the racial barriers that had once divided the country was huge, and the 1995 Rugby World Cup played a major part in doing that. In regards to the significance of that world cup for South Africa, Desmond Tutu stated, “The great thing about everything good that has happened is that it can happen again. Simple as that” (Carlin 257). Those words by Tutu couldn’t be any truer because what the 1995 Rugby World Cup showed was that a country can unite as one and overcome racism.

When trying to further analyze the affect of the 1995 Rugby World Cup on South Africa, one way to look at it is through lens of the media. According to Martha Evans in Mandela and the televised birth of the rainbow nation, television played a huge role in developing the sense of unity created by the world cup. As she noted in that article, “the victory would not have reached 43 million South Africans without the media.” It is because of the media that all of South Africa was able to witness the Cinderella story that was the Springbok rugby team. The media helped create this “Rainbow Nation” that Evans talks about in her article, and it “proved instrumental as a means of creating a sense of unity out of a profoundly scattered nation” (323). Also huge for developing unity among South Africans was Nelson Mandela’s work to influence the black South African to support the Springboks. While creating this sense of unity was great for the country, as mentioned before, after the euphoria of the 1995 Rugby World Cup faded, South Africa was now just like any other nation struggling economically. However, for me, I am more on the side of Desmond Tutu. The great thing about this event was it showed that humans are able to come together and unite as one, and sport is a great way to do that. It is able to break down racial barriers, and Nelson Mandela realized that. His role in all of this was monumental; without him none of this is accomplished. Instead of being spiteful after being released from prison he sought to unite and not retaliate; he looked out for the good of all South Africans, black and white. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was much more than a sporting event; it was the catalyst for uniting a country. Yes athletes today may be overpaid and careless with their money, and sports may seem like nothing more than entertainment, but like Nelson Mandela once said “Sport has the power to change the world.”


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