the observer Sat 30 August 2008
Just occasionally, a sporting contest really does make history or, rather, we make history of it. Jackie Robinson broke the colour bar in American Major League Baseball in 1947 and helped unleash energies that eventually culminated in the civil rights movements of the Sixties. When West Germany, on the eve of acquiring its sovereignty, won the 1954 World Cup final, it was seen as evidence that Germany had rejoined the international community and could turn the martial values of solidarity and collectivism to peaceful, even joyful, uses.
In Playing the Enemy, John Carlin tells the story of the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the decisive role it played in creating a real post-apartheid South African nationalism. Carlin has spread his net widely, interviewing much of the squad and its management, Nelson Mandela's bodyguards, ANC insiders and the head of the apartheid South African intelligence service. He has woven their lives and reactions to the game into a broader, and highly readable, history of South Africa's transition to democracy.
But the core of the narrative concerns Mandela and his role in making history out of a game. In the early Nineties, rugby did not appear to be the stuff from which a non-racial democratic South Africa would define itself. For almost a century, it had been the game of Afrikaners, its raw violence seemingly well suited to this soldier-farmer nation. The rise of the Springboks to international predominance had coincided with the electoral victory of the National party in the Forties and the imposition of apartheid. The game, it seemed, was irredeemably bound to a partial and exclusionary nationalism. It was no wonder then that the ANC and its allies saw international rugby as a key arena of struggle.
Opponents of the regime were vociferous in their support for anyone who might beat the Boks. The conflict culminated in the violence of the Springboks' 1981 tour to New Zealand, when every game was met by protests. The team's effective ban from international rugby after this helped prove to white South Africa that its regime was beyond the pale.
It did not even occur to most of the ANC that this poisonous sporting legacy could become the material for forging a new South Africa. Mandela saw an opportunity and used it. In prison, he studied Afrikaner history and learnt Afrikaans, which he used to speak to his guards. Having discovered their almost sacred passion for rugby, he did his sporting homework too. He charmed not merely his warders but a steady stream of apartheid bureaucrats and politicians who came to his cell, once the liberation struggle had made the country ungovernable without him.
Rugby thus became part of the intricate choreography of symbolic victories and concessions that made up the dance of South Africa's political transition. Against the backdrop of steady progress towards a one-person one-vote democratic state, the ANC offered white South Africa the resumption of international rugby in 1992. The first game of the new order, against New Zealand, turned into a cauldron of Afrikaner pride - the old South African flag was unfurled and 'Die Stem', the old anthem, was sung with gusto. However, rather than punish rugby and its social base, Mandela continued to court them. As Carlin argues, it was this mixture of astute politics and humane charm that carried the nation through its first successful democratic elections in 1994.
But nation-building requires more than a constitution, more even than the new flag and the adoption of the liberation song 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' alongside 'Die Stem' as a two-part national anthem. It requires moments of collective ecstasy, and that is what the final of 1995 Rugby World Cup offered. Mandela, against the grain of his own constituency, went out of his way to wear a Springboks cap, appeared at the final in the team shirt and at every stage argued that the Boks were now the whole nation's team. Carlin movingly describes how the Springboks came to learn and sing 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' and how the crowd at the final, overwhelmingly Afrikaners, sang 'Nel-son, Nel-son'. South Africa won 15-12 in extra time, the nation celebrated and the rest, as they say, is history.
In both sporting and political terms, that history has not always been an easy one. South Africa's victory at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, although universally celebrated, had none of the heady romance of 1995; the still overwhelmingly white composition of the team points to the enduring fault lines and inequalities of contemporary South Africa.
A repeat of 1995 would require a triumph of similar magnitude for what remains the game of black South Africa: football. The 2010 World Cup offers just such a stage. However, it is not South Africa's footballers who will be on trial. Expectations of the squad are so low that if they make it past the group stages, there will be delirium. The country will be judged on its capacity to cope organisationally with the cavalcade that is the World Cup and to secure the safety of visitors to its notoriously violent public spaces.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of 1995 is a mundane one about democratic politics: that economic modernisation and personal security, rather than reconciliation and reinvention, are the true benchmarks of national revival.
· David Goldblatt's most recent book is The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (Penguin)