A story of reconciliation and sports

Today’s New York Times Book Review includes a review of John Carlin’s Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, which describes how Nelson Mandela used sport to help reconcile South Africa:

The heart-lifting spectacle of South Africa’s first free election in April 1994 was, for Nelson Mandela and his followers, a triumph unimaginably sweet, but perilously incomplete. Mandela was keenly aware that his party’s victory, secured by a landslide of black votes, lacked the endorsement of alienated whites, and that whites retained sufficient wealth and weaponry to endanger his new democracy if they felt threatened. As John Carlin puts it in “Playing the Enemy,” paraphrasing Garibaldi on the birth of Italy, the election had created a new South Africa; now Mandela’s task was to create South Africans. This wonderful book describes Mandela’s methodical, improbable and brilliant campaign to reconcile resentful blacks and fearful whites around a sporting event, a game of rugby.

That South Africa’s first patch of common ground might be a rugby field was preposterous on the face of it. Rugby was the secular religion of the Afrikaners, the white tribe that invented and enforced apartheid. It was a sport that most blacks considered — if they considered it at all — “the brutish, alien pastime of a brutish, alien people.”

The anti-apartheid movement had fought passionately for a world boycott of South Africa’s team, the Springboks, knowing that this, as much as economic sanctions and domestic unrest, would drive home to ordinary Afrikaners that their dominion was untenable. Now, in an attempt to reassure the defeated minority that they had a rightful place in the new order, Mandela agreed to host the 1995 rugby World Cup games in South Africa. More than that, he set out to transform black South Africans into Springbok enthusiasts by lending his personal charisma to the loathed sport and by mobilizing all races in pursuit of a world championship.

A caveat is required: the premise that a single rugby game, even a championship game, could heal three centuries of racial division, dispelling accumulated terrors and hatreds in a magic Mandela moment, is romantic overstatement. South Africa is still a generation or two from racial reconciliation. But Carlin summons many witnesses, from ardent liberation firebrands to white racist bitter-enders, who testify that the 1995 championship match was a profoundly formative moment in the young country’s move away from the threat of civil war. By the time Carlin is finished, you’ll be inclined to grant him his poetic license.

Read it all here.

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