In 1985, Nelson Mandela, then in prison for twenty-three years, set about winning over the fiercest proponents of apartheid, from his jailers to the head of South Africa’s military. First he earned his freedom and then he won the presidency in the nation’s first free election in 1994. But he knew that South Africa was still dangerously divided by almost fifty years of apartheid. If he couldn’t unite his country in a visceral, emotional way—and fast—it would collapse into chaos. He would need all the charisma and strategic acumen he had honed during half a century of activism, and he’d need a cause all South Africans could share. Mandela picked one of the more farfetched causes imaginable—the national rugby team, the Springboks, who would host the sport’s World Cup in 1995.
Against the giants of the sport, the Springboks’ chances of victory were remote. But their chances of capturing the hearts of most South Africans seemed remoter still, as they had long been the embodiment of white supremacist rule. During apartheid, the all-white Springboks and their fans had belted out racist fight songs, and blacks would come to Springbok matches to cheer for whatever team was playing against them. Yet Mandela believed that the Springboks could embody—and engage—the new South Africa. And the Springboks themselves embraced the scheme. Soon South African TV would carry images of the team singing “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika,” the longtime anthem of black resistance to apartheid.
As their surprising string of victories lengthened, their home-field advantage grew exponentially. South Africans of every color and political stripe found themselves falling for the team. When the Springboks took to the field for the championship match against New Zealand’s heavily favored squad, Mandela sat in his presidential box wearing a Springbok jersey while sixty-two-thousand fans, mostly white, chanted “Nelson! Nelson!” Millions more gathered around their TV sets, whether in dusty black townships or leafy white suburbs, to urge their team toward victory. The Springboks won a nail-biter that day, defying the oddsmakers and capping Mandela’s miraculous ten-year-long effort to bring forty-three million South Africans together in an enduring bond.
John Carlin, a former South Africa bureau chief for the London Independent, offers a singular portrait of the greatest statesman of our time in action, blending the volatile cocktail of race, sport, and politics to intoxicating effect. He draws on extensive interviews with Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and dozens of other South Africans caught up in Mandela’s momentous campaign, and the Springboks’ unlikely triumph. As he makes stirringly clear, their championship transcended the mere thrill of victory to erase ancient hatreds and make a nation whole.