How Rugby Built a New Nation in South Africa

December 12, 2009

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

As a general rule, Americans don’t play rugby.  We are too litigious of a nation to allow grown men to bash into each other without being covered head to toe in protective gear. (Consequently, rugby playing nations think American football is for pansies.) So when I lived in South Africa, it was determined by newly found friends the need to educate me in the finer points of the game. This, of course, occurred over many pints of beer as they screamed at the television. Maybe American football and rugby aren’t so different after all…

Anyway, part of my education concerned explaining the importance of the 1995 World Cup. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected black African president of the Republic of South Africa. A new constitution was instituted. A new country was emerging. None of this was an easy transition, however-there was resentment, fear, anger, uncertainty, vengeance, forgiveness all wrapped up in confusing welter of emotion. But South Africa hosted the rugby World Cup that year and because of its host status automatically fielded a team in the competition. Despite long odds, South Africa won. This fragile, new State won the rugby World Cup!

Without fail, everyone who shared with me their version of this story-where they were and who they were with-had tears in their eyes or streaming down their face, despite ten intervening years, as they described the moment when Nelson Mandela walked on the field to present the trophy and the national anthem was played. People described entire bars standing on their chairs singing at the top of their lungs. One woman said she was jumping up and down on her bed and fell off, breaking her arm. Everyone stated that this was the moment South Africa became a new nation.

Invictus, the story of this defining moment, opens today in the US. This powerful film made me miss my friends in South Africa and the beauty of their stories about the promise of a new nation. It didn’t make me miss rugby. Despite all the beer and everyone’s best efforts, I just never really got into it.