12/05/2013 06:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

The Mandela You Don't Know: The Savvy Politician Who Used the World Cup to Unite South Africa

If you read nothing else about Nelson Mandela, I encourage you to get your hands on Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation and read the section -- near the end -- about the morning of the World Cup Championship match.

If you see nothing else about Nelson Mandela, I encourage you to watch Invictus --- the movie made from that book --- and pay particular attention to the scene when Nelson Mandela walks into the Springboks dressing room. I'll bet good money your heart will be pounding when he walks into the stadium. And it will pound straight through to the end.

All because, on June 24, 1995, the South African Rugby team beat New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup.

If you're like most Americans, you know that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison -- 18 of them in a tiny cell on Robben Island -- and emerged without hatred to spearhead a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. But you probably know nothing about the 1995 Rugby World Cup match. John Carlin's brilliant book and Clint Eastwood's stirring movie correct that, and, along the way, present a concise biography of a remarkable man.

Take just two minutes to watch the preview.

In this telling of the Nelson Mandela story, he's a brilliant politician with a genius for disarming his enemies. For him, everyone is human, everyone can be reached. The only question is how. In prison, he would introduce his lawyer to his "guard of honor" -- and his jailers would find themselves shaking hands with an attorney they loathed. And he used his dead time in prison to teach himself Afrikaans, read the Afrikaans newspapers and familiarize himself with Afrikaner history.

Rugby is the favorite sport of Afrikaners, the dominant white tribe in South Africa -- "apartheid's master race." All but one of the 15 players on the Springbok team were white. In a stadium that held 62,000, 95 percent of the crowd would be white. No wonder that blacks saw the Boks as a symbol of oppression.

"Don't address their brains," Mandela believed. "Address their hearts." One direct way to do that was through sports. People love their teams; the connection is purely emotional. If the Springboks could come to engage both blacks and whites, that might end the sense among blacks that sports in South Africa was "apartheid in tracksuits" -- and might make whites more accepting of blacks as equals.

Mandela did not just lay out a goal. He met and charmed the white lords of rugby, then lobbied for the World Cup to be played in South Africa. He invited François Pienaar, the Springboks captain, to visit him and encouraged him to see his sport as "nation building." Soon the team was learning how to sing "Nkosi Sikele," the black national anthem. And, because a storybook fantasy was becoming reality, the Springboks advanced steadily to the World Cup finals.

On the morning of the championship game, one of Mandela's bodyguards got an idea: Mandela should enter the stadium wearing a green-and-gold Springbok jersey. Mandela improved on the idea -- his jersey, he said, should have Pienaar's number on it.

Across town, the players had been staying at a hotel. To calm their nerves, they went out for an early morning jog. As they left, Pienaar recalled, "Four little black kids selling newspapers recognized us and chased after us and started calling out our names -- they knew almost everyone on that team -- and the hairs on my neck stood on end... It was the moment when I saw, more clearly than ever before, that this was far bigger than anything we could ever have imagined."

Five minutes before kickoff, Nelson Mandela walked onto the field to greet the players. To the Springbok jersey, he had added a Springbok hat. "When they caught sight of him," Carlin writes, "the crowd seemed to go dead still." And then the chant -- from the almost all-white crowd -- began: "Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!"

I'm going to leave it there, so as not to spoil the magic of the next pages for you. Just know that what happened in that stadium that afternoon was a crazy quilt of glory: atonement, forgiveness, liberation and celebration. It's the kind of event that happens when people who have known only hatred and fear drop the burden of history and move past their differences. Winning a game? That day South Africa climbed a mountain.

In our country, hate sells. Even the idealists among us must be wondering if the idea of brotherhood can compete against it. Well, it can. It did.

[cross-posted from]

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