Mandela & the 1995 Rugby World Cup: A Match that Redefined a Nation

Winning the Rugby World Cup was a long shot, but it was something Nelson Mandela knew South Africa had to do - for the sake of the entire nation.

May 1, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
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Nelson Mandela watches the final from the stands…, Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images, via history.com

 

On June 24, 1995, the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar was presented with the William Webb Ellis trophy in front of the crowd that had come to watch the final of the Rugby World Cup. Handing him the trophy was the South African president, Nelson Mandela, who had worked tirelessly so that this moment could be realized. For South Africa, this wasn’t merely winning a major sporting event. This was a triumph of peaceful unity against apartheid and a triumph of an entire nation succeeding in avoiding the very real threat of civil war, which loomed like the Sword of Damocles over the South African population in the early 90s.

 

For many South Africans, what the Springboks and Nelson Mandela had achieved was almost unthinkable and nigh impossible. The story of how it came to pass is a fascinating example of how humanity can overcome the most dangerous and difficult of obstacles.

 

The Prelude to Nelson Mandela’s Vision

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Nelson Mandela hands over the William Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar, via planetrugby.com

 

For decades, South Africa had been shunned by the international community for its mandated racist policies. South Africans lived in an isolated world rife with paranoia and government censorship. By the late 1980s, the country was struggling. Internal strife, economic sanctions, and a decades-long war took their toll on South Africa. Black people were fighting to end the regime. It was a time when the end was in sight, but the end presented the real danger of a bloody civil war.

 

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A black student on the receiving end of state violence, AP via theguardian.com

 

By the end of the 1980s, it was clear to the ruling National Party (NP) that their time was up. Apartheid would end, and the future looked bloody as many white people feared that black people would take revenge for decades of violent oppression. Indeed, this would have been the case had Nelson Mandela not appealed to human nature’s more rational and calm aspects. He convinced the African National Congress (ANC) not to seek revenge and promised white people peace if they were to relinquish their hold on the country.

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In 1989, Prime Minister PW Botha, realizing his hardline stance on preserving apartheid was losing traction, resigned and made way for FW De Klerk, who was much more amenable to a change in the status quo. He realized that the only peaceful way forward for South Africa was to make concessions and eventually hand over the reins of power to the ANC, who represented the vast majority of black South Africans.

 

After FW De Klerk became Prime Minister, he lifted the ban on the ANC, as well as other black liberation movements. On February 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released. The end was nigh for apartheid, and it was clear that the ANC would form the next government, but those in power were committed to avoiding civil war. Mandela reiterated his dedication to a peaceful transition and went around the world to gain international support.

 

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Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison, Cape Town, February 11, 1990, Allan Tannenbaum | Credit: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty, via history.com

 

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president. He was South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, and despite the peaceful overtures, there was still a lot of work to do to address the racial animosity which still existed. Understanding the ability of sports to unite people, he decided to use the Rugby World Cup as a way to heal deep racial divides. In fact, South Africa had done it before. In 1906, a Springbok team toured the British Isles. What was unusual about this team was that it contained Boers and Englishmen, who had been at war during the Second Anglo-Boer War only four years prior. One of the players had even been imprisoned in a British concentration camp.

 

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The springbok – a symbol that was long associated with the apartheid government, and also used to symbolize the South African national rugby team, via britannica.com

 

Healing the racial divide in 1995 would not be easy, though, as rugby was traditionally seen in South Africa as a white sport. Additionally, the springbok, the symbol of the national rugby team, was also seen by many black people as a symbol of oppression, as it was also used on the emblems of the apartheid police and defense forces. As such, it was also a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism – the very institution that had implemented apartheid.

 

Pushback From Black South Africans

 

Many black South Africans were unhappy with Nelson Mandela’s approach to the situation. They felt he was too conciliatory towards white people and not focused enough on restitution for the black people. One of these people was his wife, Winnie Mandela, who took a militant stance in her desire for revenge. Many black South Africans were adamant about destroying the Springbok emblem. Other sports teams had adopted South Africa’s national flower, the protea, as the new emblem. They saw the springbok as symbolic of the Afrikaner nation, which had oppressed black people.

 

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De Klerk and Mandela, via AFP-JIJI via japantimes.co.jp

 

Mandela, however, saw Afrikaners in a new light. In the 1960s, he had begun studying the Afrikaans language, much to the derision of his peers. He knew that one day he would be negotiating with Afrikaans people. He knew he had to understand them. He also knew that taking revenge on the former oppressors would plunge the country into civil war and that working together with them in the spirit of reconciliation would bring peaceful benefits. While upsetting the more militant elements of black society, his efforts won him favor within white society, both English and Afrikaans speaking.

 

His dedication to this way of thinking would be apparent in his cabinet choices in his Government of National Unity. Of the 21 ministers who made up the cabinet, six were from the National Party, including FW De Klerk, who held the position of Deputy President. The National Anthem, too, was inclusive. Both the old anthem, “Die Stem,” and the new anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” were sung together.

 

Nelson Mandela and the ANC pushed on with their plan, addressing black people and beseeching them to see the bigger picture: a Springbok success at the World Cup would benefit all South Africans. He became close friends with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springbok rugby team, and the two of them worked together on promoting unity between black and white South Africans. They knew that while hosting the Rugby World Cup would be beneficial in fostering unity, nothing short of complete victory would bring what was really required. The pressure was immense.

 

The Road to the Final…

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Joost van der Westhuizen in action against the Wallabies in the 1995 Rugby World Cup opening game, Mike Hewitt / Getty, via theweek.co.uk

 

The first hurdle for the Springboks was the opening match against the Wallabies, Australia’s national team and the world champions at the time. The Wallabies were confident, as they had had an undefeated 1994 season. But the Springboks were also full of confidence, and they beat the Australians, 27-18. In the crowd, the new South African flag waved alongside several old South African flags, which was a worrying sign as the old South African flag was the ultimate symbol of apartheid.

 

The rest of the group stages games for the Springboks were unimpressive but very physical encounters. They ground out a win against Romania 21-8 and beat Canada 20-0 in a match that became famous for an uncontrollable and bloody fistfight that ignored the referee’s desperate whistle-blowing and arm-waving. The all-out brawl immediately saw three players being sent off.

 

In the All Black (New Zealand) camp, the mood was optimistic. The tournament favorites had very comfortably beaten Ireland 43-19 and Wales 34-9 before stunning the Japanese in a clinical, record-breaking match, scoring 16 tries in their 145-17 victory. It was very clear why the bookies favored the All Blacks to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.

 

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The All Blacks run riot against Japan, Getty via irishtimes.com

 

In the quarter-finals, South Africa took on West Samoa. As expected, it was an extremely physical game, but South Africa won it comfortably 42-14. South Africa’s only player of color, Chester Williams, made history by scoring four tries in the match. South Africa’s next game would be even tougher as they would have to face off against France in extremely wet conditions. In their own quarter-finals, New Zealand comfortably beat Scotland 48-30.

 

The semi-finals were thrilling affairs. New Zealand had little problem dismantling England. The feared giant, Jonah Lomu, scored four tries, adding to his reputation of being unstoppable by plowing through much of England’s defense and creating an especially memorable moment of steamrolling England’s Mike Catt; a moment which Catt admitted in his biography still haunts him. The final score was 45-29.

 

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Jonah Lomu’s encounter with England’s Mike Catt, by Ben Radford / Allsport, via mirror.co.uk

 

South Africa’s match against France was a nail-biting affair. An unexpected downpour had turned the field into a swamp, and the referee erred on the side of canceling the match. Due to their better disciplinary record during the tournament, France would have gone through to the finals. A bunch of old ladies with brooms saved the day for South Africa; however, when they took to the field and swept away the worst of the flooding. Towards the end of the game, South Africa led 19-15, when France suddenly got their tails up and started running rampant. With South Africa making mistakes, France ran in what was almost a try, stopped by an inch by a valiant defense. The French spent the rest of the game camped by the South African try line, threatening to score, until the referee finally blew the whistle, eliciting the biggest sigh of relief South Africans have ever issued.

 

The Final Match

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The ladies who saved the day, via rugbyworldcup.com

 

The stage was set for a thrilling final that would make history, no matter the outcome. Nobody in the stands was waving the old South African flag, unlike at the opening game. The country had, by now, dropped prejudices for the time being and embraced Nelson Mandela’s vision. As Nelson Mandela walked into the stadium, the mostly-white crowd chanted, “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”

 

The Springboks stared down the All Blacks as they performed their haka, and the match got underway. The All Blacks opened the scoring with a penalty kick to put them in the lead. Penalties went back and forth throughout the whole game until full time when the scores were tied at 9-9. The game went into extra time, with the South Africans knowing that New Zealand would lift the cup because of their better disciplinary record if the game ended in a draw with no tries being scored.

 

Halfway through the extra time, New Zealand took the lead with a penalty and was ahead 12-9. South Africa then drew level with a penalty and took the lead with a drop goal. When the whistle finally blew, the score stood at 15-12 in the Springbok’s favor. Tears overcame the South African players as they dropped to their knees before gathering themselves and doing a victory lap. In a post-match interview, a journalist asked Francois Pienaar what it was like in the stadium having the support of 60,000 South African fans. Francois replied, “We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans.”

 

To the crowd’s delight, Nelson Mandela came onto the field wearing the no. 6 jersey of Francois Pienaar and handed over the trophy to the captain of the victorious team. As he did so, he said, “Francois, thank you for what you have done for the country,” to which Francois Pienaar replied, “No, Mr. Mandela, thank you for what you have done for the country.”

 

One of Nelson Mandela’s Finest Moments

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Francois Pienaar lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy, Ross Kinnaird/PA Images via Getty Images via rugbypass.com

 

While the euphoria did not last forever, and neither did that South African feeling of ubuntu (unison), what will always last is the knowledge of what can be done even in the face of the most daunting odds. The story was immortalized not only in the hearts of South Africans but also in Hollywood. The movie Invictus (2009) tells the story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), and the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

 

“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 there was only despair.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013).



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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.