How did Nelson Mandela use rugby to unify South Africa?

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Nelson Mandela was an enigmatic figure during his long years imprisoned in South Africa, especially during his 27 years isolated in a prison on Robben Island. What most people outside of South Africa knew about Mandela was that he was an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement opposing the white-minority...

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Nelson Mandela was an enigmatic figure during his long years imprisoned in South Africa, especially during his 27 years isolated in a prison on Robben Island. What most people outside of South Africa knew about Mandela was that he was an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement opposing the white-minority government’s institutionalized and violently enforced system of racial segregation. Mandela was associated with the Communist Party and with the militant African National Congress. For all most people knew of Mandela during those decades, he was a militant, himself, responsible for anti-government violence. His release from prison in 1990 was a highly-anticipated event on both sides of the political divides both in South Africa and in the United States. Many on the political right in both countries expected a vindictive militant anxious to exact some measure of vengeance for his 27 years in prison.

When Mandela was officially released from prison on February 11, 1990, the figure the world observed was the personification of dignity. Walking ramrod straight in civilian clothes, public impressions were immediately positive, and Mandela’s subsequent comments and actions only reinforced those initial impressions. To his everlasting credit, he recognized the need to prioritize the healing of old wounds over the natural inclination to seek vengeance. He knew that if South Africa were to survive this monumental transition from minority white governance to majority black, racial animosities would have to be suppressed. Sports, he believed, were the instrument that would accomplish his objective. A former boxer, Mandela had commented to a reporter once following his release from prison that

Boxing is egalitarian. . .When you're probing your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, you're not thinking about his color or his social status. In the ring, rank, age, color and wealth are irrelevant.

Deference to boxing aside, Mandela understood that its appeal was, in general, far more limited than athletic endeavors that were more national and international in scope. In addition, boxing was an individual sport, and a team sport was more appropriate for his purpose.

While sports were the instrument Mandela envisioned using to forge a sense of national unity in the post-apartheid era, the choice of a sport took a more strategic outlook than most would have considered. Rugby was an interesting choice because it was a “white man’s sport.” It was associated with colonialism and repression. It was precisely its association with whites, however, that made it key. Forging unity among disparate races that had only recently literally been at war was a major challenge and the defeated, minority white population, especially the Afrikaners of Dutch descent who had dominated South African politics and who had conceptualized and enforced the policy of apartheid, were defensive and nervous. Whites feared what they viewed as the inevitable use of force against them by a formerly-repressed black majority now in power. To alleviate white concerns, therefore, Mandela chose a white sport to celebrate and to use as a showcase for national unification. And, he succeeded, at least for a while.

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