A Leader and a Champion

South Africa’s rugby captain remembers when Mandela used sport for national healing

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Jean-Pierre Muller / AFP / Getty Images

South Africa's president Nelson Mandela congratulates South Africa's rugby team captain François Pienaar before handing him the William Webb trophy after his team's victory over New Zealand in the final of the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, June 24, 1995.

In 1995, Francois Pienaar led host country South Africa to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Mandela famously used the tournament to reach out to South Africa’s whites through their cherished sport. At one game, he wore the Springbok green-and-gold jersey, previously a symbol of apartheid. When Pienaar’s team triumphed, South Africans celebrated as a nation of equals. Pienaar, 46, spoke to Time correspondent Alex Perry last year.
What did Nelson Mandela mean to South Africa and the world?

He sacrificed so much in his life—family, friends and a big chunk of his life—for things he believed in. Nothing could persuade him to drop his beliefs: a democratic South Africa, with equal rights, and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. A lot of people thought we were heading toward civil war. Instead Madiba [Mandela’s Xhosa clan name] delivered, and South -Africa embraced a very difficult transition.

What did he mean to you?

Our relationship grew after [the World Cup]. When there was nothing to gain from a relationship with me, that’s when our friendship grew. Irrespective of the wonderful qualities that he had—the forgiveness, the selflessness, his humility, his intellect—the stories that make him extra–extra-special in our house are the small things. He came to my wedding. When our first child was born, the phone rang in the early hours, and it was Madiba, to congratulate us and to ask if he could be god-father. He really, really cared. I just loved him to bits.

Was he aware of how much he meant to so many people?

He got it. That’s why he conducted himself in the manner he did. There was a shyness to this huge man, something that wanted to deflect all that [attention], in case he failed. That’s one thing that I really, really loved about him. He knew he was fallible and did not want to disappoint.

Is South Africa living up to his legacy?

Yes and no. The promises he made, the delivery on those promises, the fact that he was uncompromised—that sets him apart. How do you -follow on? It’s very difficult.

Did it surprise you that Mandela invested so much in sport?

He understood why people love sport and the emotion that sport carries. He realized it can create hope where there was only despair. When he walked out into the stadium in 1995 in front of 65,000 people, of whom 99.99% would have been white, and they all started shouting, “Nelson. -Nelson. Nelson.” They sang “Shosholoza,” an Ndebele song, a freedom song. Why? Because sport can be a catalyst for the healing process to start.

Were you aware this was more than a game?

Not before the competition started. But in six weeks, I saw the country change. At our hotel in Cape Town, the lady who checked us in was wearing a Springbok jumper. The gentleman who served us breakfast would say we must eat because we needed to be strong. The morning of the final [in Johannesburg], we went for a run, and four black kids selling newspapers chased after us, shouting the names of the players. After the match, when an interviewer asked me how it felt to win in front of 65,000 people, I replied, “We didn’t have 65,000. We had 43 million.”

Mandela could have a transformative effect on people himself.

I’ve seen it. His compassion, humility, his genuine caring, stopping to understand, listen and talk, it leaves an indelible impression. In Pollsmoor Prison, a warden told me a story. On Monday night, it was his job to show movies to the four prisoners, including Mandela. Once, he complained about not having a fresh cup of coffee. So the next Monday night, Madiba walks over to him with a fresh cup and two biscuits, gives them to him, walks back and watches the movie. The warden was, I would say, very conservative. Yet when he told me his story, he was charged. He was shaking.

How big a hole is he going to leave here?

He shouldn’t leave a hole. I hope his passing is a celebration of life. He remains an example to us all. He should be a monument of hope, humility, courage and love. It’s a very special moment. But it’s a tough one.