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Memories of Madiba


  • 06 Dec 2013
Nelson Mandela and John Smit in 2007 Nelson Mandela and John Smit in 2007

Former and current Springbok players, and an ex-Springbok coach, tell SA Rugby magazine how former president Nelson Mandela inspired them.

FRANCOIS PIENAAR
SPRINGBOK FLANK AND CAPTAIN (1993-1996)

‘Every time I met Madiba, his humility was so striking. He had a common touch with people ... he made you feel at ease, he made you feel important and he took time to speak with you. That stood out every time I was in Madiba’s presence. He’s such a humble person.

‘During the 1995 World Cup, we adopted the motto “one team, one country” because we realised we were doing this for everybody in South Africa and doing well would make them proud. Every day, my mobile phone would ring and it would be Madiba trying to find out about the team. He would ask what was happening and if the players were focused. It was amazing that he had the time and presence of mind to phone and remind the team that he was behind us. It was a small gesture, but it meant a lot.

‘Walking into the change room before the 1995 World Cup final against New Zealand and seeing the Springbok over his heart was an incredible moment in my life. I couldn’t sing the anthem because I was so emotional. I was so proud to be a South African. Again, the fact that he took the time to come down to the change room meant a lot to the players. And when we walked on to the field, we heard the chants of “Nelson” around the stadium, which was so powerful.

‘During the post-match ceremony, Madiba handed the trophy to me and said: “Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.” I replied: “No, you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for South Africa.” To receive the Holy Grail of rugby from such an amazing person and be able to lift it in front of a nation sent shivers down my spine.’

CHESTER WILLIAMS
SPRINGBOK WING (1993-2000)

‘In 1995, I was amazed to receive a call from Mr Nelson Mandela’s   secretary, who told me he wanted to meet me. I visited his house and it immediately struck me that Madiba was no ordinary man. His aura and calm nature was evident, and the way he spoke and the words he used inspired me. His main message to me was to play for South Africa’s pride at the 1995 World Cup, which I took to heart.

‘Before the final against New Zealand, Madiba surprisingly walked into the change room and everyone went silent. He gave his best wishes to each individual, which inspired us all. When we lined up for the traditional handshakes on the field, Mr Mandela whispered in my ear: “I’m very proud of you. Go on and play, do your best and make your country proud.”

‘It’s clear Mr Mandela played a big part in the Boks winning the 1995 World Cup. Through our relationship with rugby and politics, we have managed to inspire many black kids to play sport.’

JOEL STRANSKY
SPRINGBOK FLYHALF (1993-1996)

‘The first time I met Mr Mandela was about a week before the 1995 World Cup. We were at a training session at Silvermine and the squad was given specific orders to finish practice after an hour. Normally the kickers would remain behind to practise our goal-kicking, so you can imagine how annoyed I was when we were told we couldn’t stay on the field. When everybody was in the hall for lunch, we heard the loud noise of a helicopter landing outside and we realised it was Madiba. We had tea and scones with him. He wished us well for the World Cup and told us the whole nation was behind us. We only fully realised that when we ran on to the field for our first match against Australia.

‘Before the final against New Zealand, everybody was quite tense in the change room. Suddenly, a bodyguard stepped in, which caught our attention. Then Mr Mandela followed. What impressed me is that he didn’t just wish us well, shake our hands and walk off. He went to each player and spoke about their specific position, which showed he had been following our progress and knew a bit about the game.

‘That made a big impression on the boys and inspired all of us. Seeing Mr Mandela celebrating with us after the game remains one of my favourite memories.

‘What was really special was being able to meet Mr Mandela at his home after my wife and I returned from the UK in 1999. He reminded me about the role I had played at the World Cup, which was important in unifying South Africa. I was very lucky to spend time with this special man, who has done so much for this country. It was a huge honour indeed.’

NICK MALLETT
SPRINGBOK COACH (1997-2000)

‘I was fortunate enough to be invited to have lunch with Mr Nelson Mandela along with Springbok manager Arthob Peterson and captain Gary Teichmann. He wanted to congratulate us on our 1998 Tri-Nations title and the 17 wins in a row, which had equalled the world record.

‘Receiving his congratulations remains my proudest moment as national coach. I felt incredibly privileged to spend time with him. I remember being in awe of his capacity to forgive and feeling that we, as South Africans, were incredibly lucky that he had chosen reconciliation rather than revenge. I remember his humility and his ability to have time for the common man, and his sense of humour and fun.

‘We had a two-hour lunch and discussed the pressure he had been under from the ANC executive committee after he was released. They were not certain reconciliation was the right strategy. He absolutely believed that if he could show the Afrikaans community he was right behind the Springboks, it would help them feel part of  the new South Africa. We also spoke about his love of sport and boxing in particular – he admired Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. He also spoke about the unifying influence of sport for a nation and how he could see our national teams being catalysts for bringing South Africa together.

‘His obvious support of the Springbok team during the 1995 World Cup had a massive influence in encouraging the majority of the population to support the Springboks. Without this generosity of spirit, I have no doubt it would have been far more difficult for the Springboks to win over support from all population groups.’

JUAN SMITH
SPRINGBOK FLANK (2003-2010)

‘As a youngster, I followed the 1995 World Cup very closely and remember seeing how Mr Nelson Mandela brought South Africa together and inspired the Springboks. What stood out for me was that he was not bitter after spending 27 years in jail. He didn’t want revenge. Instead, his main goal was to unify the nation, which he achieved.

‘I was lucky enough to relive those memories of the 1995 World Cup as I was part of the Springbok side that won the 2007 tournament. I remember how we were inspired after meeting with Mr Mandela before the tournament. We also got to celebrate with him when we returned home. I remember how proud he was of us. He told us that winning the title had played a big part in the growth of this beautiful country.

‘Mr Mandela is a true ambassador of South Africa. I will never forget what he did for us.’

JOHN SMIT
SPRINGBOK HOOKER AND CAPTAIN (2000-2011)

‘I was lucky to not only meet Mr Nelson Mandela several times, but to experience his kind human nature and develop a strong bond with him during my Springbok career. It was easy for me to see why he’s so loved by many – his aura and the way he spoke made me feel so comfortable around him.

‘After being named Bok captain in 2003, I got to meet Madiba every year, which proved to be the start of a friendship. The most sentimental moment came in 2006, after the birth of my daughter. I was on my way to a Sharks training session in Durban, and had just turned on to the M4 when I received a call. The person on the other side said Nelson Mandela wanted to talk to me. I was sure someone was pulling my leg – I didn’t think a person of his stature would go out of his way to try and get through to me. But I agreed nonetheless, and was surprised to hear his voice. He congratulated me on the birth of my first child and gave me advice on what to expect. It’s a conversation I’ll never forget.’

BRYAN HABANA
SPRINGBOK WING (2004-2013)

‘During the 1995 World Cup, I was lucky enough to go around the country and watch the big Springbok games as a youngster. My dad and I travelled to Cape Town to watch their opening match against the Wallabies. We also went to the quarter-final against Samoa in Johannesburg and the semi-final against France in Durban. I was then part of the crowd of 63 000 for the final at Ellis Park, which was one of the greatest games I’ve watched.

‘I remember seeing how Mr Nelson Mandela inspired the team before the game and how the players celebrated with him after the final whistle. I saw how rugby had brought the whole country together, thanks to Mr Mandela. Witnessing those moments inspired me to play rugby … I had only played soccer before then.

‘The first time I got to meet Mr Mandela was in 2005, when I was part of the 46664 campaign. I got to shake his hand and remember the great speech he gave. He said we all had a role to play to inspire our fellow South Africans.

‘He then wished us well before the 2007 World Cup and inspired us to go on and win the tournament. We also got to meet him when we arrived back in South Africa as world champions. What hit me was how proud he was of the boys. While we were trying to show him respect for what he has done for South Africa, all he was interested in was congratulating us and making us feel special. During my few minutes with him, he thanked me for my contribution on the field, which was a huge honour.

‘I was also lucky enough to get to wish Mr Mandela on his 90th birthday, which I’ll never forget. I was blessed to get the chance to meet a great man like him.’

JEAN DE VILLIERS
SPRINGBOK CENTRE AND CAPTAIN (2002-2013)

‘The first time I met Mr Nelson Mandela was before my first UK tour with the Springboks in 2002. I was still very young, so you can imagine how excited and nervous I was to meet an international icon like him. It was amazing how his presence was enough to inspire everyone … he didn’t even need to say much.

‘I was lucky to meet Madiba several more times during my career. One of the most memorable occasions was before a Nelson Mandela Plate match against Australia in July 2005. It was the first time I had partnered Jaque Fourie in the midfield. Mr Mandela took time out to shake hands with everybody on the field and the whole Springbok squad was up for the game. It was a great start to my partnership with Jaque as we both scored a try during the 33-20 win.

‘Two more special occasions were before and after the 2007 World Cup. Mr Mandela gave us a strong message before leaving for France. He said he believed in us and reminded us how the whole nation was behind the team. After winning the tournament, we all got the chance to take photos with Mr Mandela and the trophy. I remember the smile on his face … he was very proud of us and didn’t mind taking the time to do the photo shoot.

‘He’s an amazing man and past, current and future Springboks will always remember what he did for the country and South African rugby.’

How players reacted on Twitter to news of Madiba's death

Mark Keohane: Boks were always Madiba's boys

Jon Cardinelli: Madiba magic lives on

VIDEO: Mandela on rugby and the Springboks

How Mandela saved the Springbok emblem

VIDEO: Mandela meets the 1995 Boks

Saru pays tribute to Mandela

Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images

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