Nelson Mandela: 'A South African Lincoln'

PHOTO: Nelson Mandela

There are few moments in history when a sport can not only unite a nation but also define it.

South Africa appeared to be poised on the brink of civil war in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela, a former prisoner who had been reviled as a "terrorist" by the government for decades, earned the respect of his country as its president, some argue, because of his rallying the people of South Africa into a bid for the 1995 rugby World Cup.

"It was far, far, far more than a sporting event," said foreign journalist and author John Carlin. "I've never come across a more politically significant, emotional ... moment then what was witnessed at the World Cup."

Carlin was based in South Africa as a correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent from 1989 to 1995. Through his work, Carlin was allowed to observe Mandela and get to know him. His book, "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation," was the story behind the Academy award-winning Mandela biopic, "Invictus."

"He's the most charismatic person I've ever met," Carlin said of the former South African president. "He wasn't a great speaker, a great orator, nothing like Obama or Reagan. In a more intimate environment, in a room, he'd absolutely light up the place."

Life of Nelson Mandela: See the Photos

After he was released from prison, Mandela was faced with what Carlin described as two "mission impossibles." Mandela had to answer to the white and black populations of South Africa to become their leader, both of which were boiling under racial tensions.

Carlin explained that when Mandela was elected president in May 1994, he "geniusly" called upon all of South Africa to throw its support behind the nation's rugby team, the Springboks. It was considered a bold move at the time.

"The thing about rugby was that it was really a powerful symbol of a deep racial division," Carlin said and the national team had been historically segregated. "For the white population as a whole, a symbol of their pride and identity ... For the black population, the Springboks were a symbol of apartheid."

When Mandela first went before thousands of his supporters in 1994, Carlin said, they were angry, screaming for war and waving banners that read, "We Want Arms, Mandela. Give Us Arms."

"Mandela would face up to them and said, 'Look, this is not the way to go. ... We will pursue the option of peace. If you want arms, I will no longer be your leader,'" Carlin said. "He had to persuade black Africans feeling humiliation, his own people, to put aside their impulse for vengeance, and reach out to those who had oppressed them."

A month into his first term, Mandela also invited Springbok captain Francois Pienaar to meet with him. Carlin said Mandela asked the team to be his ambassadors of peace to both the white and black populations in the months leading up to the World Cup.

"[The people] effectively crowned him king of South Africa," Carlin said. "He's a South African Lincoln."

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