Sports and nation-building


When Mandela left prison and assumed power he was finally free from political persecution, but his country was not free to achieve what other democracies crave: a functioning political sphere and domestic tranquility. South Africa stood paralyzed by white fears and frustrated black aspirations.

Everything in apartheid South African society was rigidly divided along racial lines, especially sports. Black South Africans almost without exception played soccer over rugby, while white South Africans favored rugby. The one non-white player on team, Chester Williams, was classified as “colored” (meaning mixed-race) under the apartheid system and would have been separated socially from the black majority. The Springboks (the nickname for the national rugby team) were a prominent and public symbol of the apartheid system. The ANC successfully protested against the team and prevented it from playing in international competitions. Perhaps nothing annoyed the ruling minority more than the loss of rooting for their “boks.”

Sports and politics are not natural partners. Their aims, objectives, and reasons for existence are different (despite the proliferation of sports analogies in political commentary). Of course, sports do occupy an important role in modern society and are not immune to social and political forces. However, in most instances, it is prudent for sports to operate outside of formal political interference. For instance, FIFA, the world soccer organization, has strict roles against state interference in national teams. Additionally, Hitler’s use of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as a showcase for his Nazi regime is a reminder of the perils of political involvement in sports.

Despite this natural tension, sports in rare moments can transform broader society for the better. Mandela’s skillful promotion of the rugby team as a vehicle for racial healing is a remarkable instance of the symbolic power sports can hold to move people together for the common good. Unfortunately, for other trouble spots in the world, Mandela was a singular leader who possessed uncommon capacities for forgiveness and leadership. The movie will undoubtedly remind you of the lost opportunities in Afghanistan and Iraq and make you lament the lack of Mandela-like national leadership there. It also just might make you wish they had a strong rugby team.