The dictionary definition of “team” is “a number of persons associated together in work or an activity.” The word can apply to any group of people working toward a common goal, including a sports team or a political party. Any number of issues can divide a team, but one goal can unite not only a team but a nation.
For most of the 20th century, South Africa was ruled by the white Afrikaner party and opposed by Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid African National Congress. Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela was elected president of the country in 1994. His first goal was to unite his racially-torn country.
Mandela said, “Sports has the power to change the world….It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, by John Carlin, tells the story of how as the newly elected president of a divided country, Mandela contrived to attract the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa, and to use his national team, the Springboks, as a means to unite blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa.
In sports, Mandela found a common interest of both races, one that had the power to bring all of the people of South Africa behind a single goal. A rugby fan himself, Mandela knew that both blacks and whites loved the game. He worked brilliantly with the national rugby team to inspire and connect his countrymen of all stripes.
Though the players were all white except for one black, Mandela asked them to go into the townships around Cape Town and other poverty-stricken areas and offer their services to the people. The team banded together and gave of themselves, so they could represent their country both on and off the pitch.
The team succeeded not only in improbably winning the Cup but also in inspiring a degree of racial harmony in the country. In the process, the Springboks, a traditional symbol of Afrikaner dominance, morphed into a symbol of national unification.
STACK’s Take: Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation inspired the blockbuster film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The book deals more with Mandela’s background and the culture of South Africa than with the sport of rugby. Both book and movie deliver this message: one man and one team can make a monumental difference to a nation.