BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Saturday, 20 October 2007, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
The game which united a country
By Allan Little
BBC News

For many years, South Africa was a divided nation, both racially and in the sport people watched. Then, in 1995, a World Cup competition helped change things.

South Africa's Bryan Habana, foreground, scores his team's second try during the Rugby World Cup semi-final between South Africa and Argentina
Rugby in South Africa is no longer seen as being racially divisive
They were once the team that most South Africans loved to hate.

The team that inspired protests across the world calling for international sporting boycotts.

The team at the heart of South Africa's international sporting isolation.

Nelson Mandela himself spoke of listening to Springbok games on the radio during his long incarceration on Robben Island and rooting for whoever they were playing.

The all-white South African rugby team was one of the greatest symbols of apartheid. White supremacy at play.


Football was the game favoured by most blacks, a game that went unnoticed in the affluent white suburbs.

A decade ago, one of South Africa's most talented and popular football players was a white man called Mark Fish.

Two sporting cultures there were, each with its own pantheon of heroes and triumphs and tragedies
He was recognised all over Africa. I remember a class of seven-year-olds in Sierra Leone chanting his name.

But he said he could go into a restaurant in his own home town - Pretoria - and none of his white fellow diners would bat an eyelid.

Only when the black waiter came to take his order would the commotion begin, as catering staff were summoned en masse from the kitchen to shake his hand and ask for his autograph.

Thus was sporting South Africa divided, the way that everything in the old days was divided. There were two sporting cultures, each with its own pantheon of heroes and triumphs and tragedies.

It was the hated Springboks that turned all that around in three short magical weeks in 1995.

Mysterious rules

I went to watch one of the early games of the tournament with a good-humoured mixed race group of South African friends.

The white people brought their biltong and boerewors and their chilled tins of Castle lager.

Black South Africa fell in love with rugby and the hulking white men who dominated it
The black ones for the most part, watched in bemused and slightly sullen curiosity. The rules of the game were a closed book to them.

"Why do they keep passing the ball backwards?" one man asked me.

But as the tournament went on and it became clear that South Africa were going to do well, you felt the sullenness lift.

Black South Africa fell in love with rugby and the hulking white men who dominated it.

'The boks, the boks'

The nation's football team were known popularly as "bafana bafana" which means, simply "the boys the boys" in South Africa's Nguni languages.

In the days before the final, in which South Africa would face the runaway favourites New Zealand, the influential Sowetan newspaper - the biggest selling daily in Black South Africa - held a vital editorial conference among its journalists: what stance should the paper take?

Mandela told the team he was proud of them... It is said to have moved Pienaar near to tears
It decided to do far more than just back the team.

It coined a new word to mirror "bafana bafana" that would enter the lexicon of the country's sporting affections: "amaBokaBoka" - "the boks, the boks" in the Nguni tongues.

It was, suddenly and irresistibly, respectable to get behind the Springboks.

The team would later attribute its victory in that historic final to the secret 16th player.

President Nelson Mandela turned up in the dressing room in the minutes before the match, wearing a Springbok shirt with the number of the captain, Francois Pienaar, on his back.

Mandela told the team he was proud of them. It is said to have moved Pienaar near to tears.

The camera reveals him so overcome that he was unable to sing the national anthem before the match began.

Mandela took his place in the stand and something magical happened. South Africa, so recently in from the cold, became world champions.

National pride

But that was not the end of it.

Black South Africa had not forgotten the slight it had suffered decades earlier when a well known South African golfer had won an international tournament.

After sinking his winning putt, the golfer had been interviewed on live television.

Referring to the sporting boycott, the interviewer had said "And of course this is a great day for South Africa too," to which the player had replied "Yes, it means a lot.

"We are a small country of just five million people." By which, of course, he meant five million white people.

Significant moment

Seconds after the final whistle blew that day in Johannesburg, Francois Pienaar, still breathless, was on the touchline for his own post-victory live television interview.

File: South Africa's president Nelson Mandela presents captain Francois Pienaar with the Rugby World Cup in 1995 (Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images)
Pienaar collected the Rugby World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela
"You had great support from 65,000 South Africans here today, the interviewer said, referring to the capacity of the packed stadium.

Without a moment's hesitation, Pienaar said: "No. We had the support of 43 million South Africans today."

Everybody understood the significance of the moment.

South Africa, brave, inclusive, optimistic, had turned a corner, and could take pride again in its own identity.

When South Africans celebrated that night they were celebrating so much more than a sporting triumph.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 20 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

1995 World Cup: Stunning Springboks
25 Sep 03 |  Photo Galleries
Pienaar backs Boks for World Cup
07 Jun 07 |  Rugby Union
Fish to make comeback
06 Feb 07 |  African
Country profile: South Africa
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific