Sun City, South Africa: South Africa’s multi-racial Rugby Sevens team huddled in the middle of the stadium named after Nelson Mandela. The players raised their hands together to the sky. Then they went out and won the game.
It was all a reflection of Mandela’s vision for sports in his country. And this day was something he surely would have enjoyed. Just as he famously delighted in the Springboks’ famous rugby World Cup victory in 1995 or the country’s historic role in hosting soccer’s World Cup in 2010.
In the stands at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday, blacks and whites waved their country’s flag and loudly cheered scores by the dreadlocked Cecil Afrika and the team’s blond captain, Kyle Brown.
“It’s a real honour and privilege to be a South African today,” Brown said, apologising that he wasn’t able to give, as he saw it, a more poetic tribute to the former president, who died Thursday at 95.
Brown, however, may have indeed touched on something: South African sports is now proud, and that wasn’t always the case.
For decades it was splintered by racism, as was every aspect of South Africa’s apartheid-era society. Black players were excluded and white ones vilified for their perceived connection to a racist regime. Fans at home turned on their national teams, until Mandela urged them to unite.
So, while mourning the loss of the nation’s beloved father figure, South Africa has decided that sport — so central to the country’s new unity — will go on over the next days as a proud celebration of Mandela’s inspiring legacy.
South Africans will play for Mandela: rugby players, soccer players, cricketers and more. From the international rugby sevens tournament in Port Elizabeth to a big domestic soccer cup final in the northern city of Nelspruit on Saturday and a cricket game between South Africa and visiting India in the east-coast city of Durban on Sunday.
“We celebrate a life well-lived,” Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said, announcing a plan for games for the next week. “It’s through sport that we do not differentiate between white and black but are identified as one nation. This is through the legacy that Mandela achieved.”
Mbalula said that the national anthem — a mix of five languages — would be sung at every match or tournament until Mandela is buried in a state funeral near his rural South African home on December 15. That day, next Sunday, no sport will take place.
But until then, the games will proceed with their tributes, moments of silence and black armbands. Every match, Mbalula said, will be dedicated to Mandela.
In Port Elizabeth, in Mandela’s home Eastern Cape province, the South African rugby players beat Canada in their opening game of the international World Sevens Series event. The South Africans wore their black bands on their sleeves across an image of the country’s multi-coloured flag.
Fans held Mandela banners. One said ‘Madiboks’ — a play on the words Madiba, the affectionate clan name South Africans have for Mandela, and the name of South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks.
A young boy had one huge sign with a famous quote from Mandela emblazoned across it in green and gold letters, the colours worn by South Africa’s national teams: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Said South Africa cricket captain AB de Villiers: “His memory will not only inspire us in our current series against India, but also to always stick together as a team representing a nation into the future. We will miss him.”
Irvin Khoza, chairman of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, urged players and fans to honour Mandela with every game. “Ours is a special generation that saw Madiba in action,” he said.