A captain's bond with his president

A look back at the friendship forged between Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela.

Francois Pienaar accepts the World Cup from Nelson Mandela in 1995 - the start of a great friendship between the pair.
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A look back at the friendship forged between Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela. On the morning of the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup opening ceremony, Francois Pienaar, the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed South African skipper who had been coaching the impoverished children of Soweto long before it became politically correct to do so, took his players on a tour of Robben Island. Crowded into in the hateful cell in which Nelson Mandela had been kept for 18 years, Pienaar dedicated the team's campaign to his president.

At the same moment in time, former prisoner 466/64 now President Mandela was giving a speech to a vast audience in the black township of Ezakheni. "This," he proclaimed, pointing to the Springbok baseball cap on his head, "does honour to our boys. I ask you to stand by them because they are our kind." Inspired by the president's message, The Sowetan daily newspaper carried the front page banner headline: AMABOKOBOKO (Zulu for 'Our Springboks') on the day of the team's opening game against Australia.

"Until the whistle blew against the All Blacks in the final, the foremost thought in my mind had been winning the World Cup," recalled Pienaar, who, eight years after ending his playing career at English Premiership club Saracens, returned to the UK from his home in Cape Town last weekend as guest of honour at a charity dinner. "But when I saw the president walking towards me carrying the William Webb Ellis Cup and wearing my No 6 Springbok jersey - the one I had given him after we'd beaten the Australians - I knew this was a victory far, far more important than anything we'd ever achieve on the rugby pitch.

"Other presidents would probably have worn their best silk suit. When Mr Mandela chose to wear my Springbok shirt, it symbolised change, the coming together of a nation. The new South Africa was actually born then." Thirteen years on, the Springbok emblem on South Africa's famous green and gold shirts which, during the obscene years of apartheid, was regarded as a symbol of Afrikaan supremacy, has aroused new controversy.

Speaking at the Ubumbo rugby festival at the University of Cape Town last month, loose-forward Luke Watson (whose declared himself 'unavailable for the current three Tests series against Wales, Scotland and England) was reported to have described wearing the shirt as "a burden" and that he had to struggle "to keep myself from vomiting on it." Watson, whose father, Cheeky, was a white anti-apartheid activist, is entitled to his opinion, but to Pienaar, the memory of wearing the Sprinbok shirt is one to treasure.

"I was only the third captain to experience winning the World Cup, but I don't think any of the others could have experienced it the way I did. "The emotion of beating the New Zealand All Blacks in the final on South African soil so soon after the political revolution was a fairy tale. I know it is a cliche, but that's what it was for me. A fairy tale. As a boy I'd never dared dream I'd ever be a Springbok. So to be captain of a Springbok team which beat the best in the world - watched by a black president - was totally beyond my wildest imaginings."

The blossoming friendship between Springbok skipper and president came to symbolise the birth of the rainbow nation. At the state banquet held to celebrate the country's World Cup triumph, Nelson Mandela introduced himself to Pienaar's fiancee, Nerine, with the words: 'Would you feel offended if I came to your wedding'? "Nerine's jaw just hit the table. She was really stunned by how incredibly humble this wonderful man was." And what does a president give a national hero for a wedding present, I wondered? A toaster, perhaps, a set of pots and pans, or maybe a canteen of cutlery?

"A beautiful set of crystal glasses and decanter which we keep in a special place. Among our proudest possessions is a photograph of the three of us at the reception. But the best thing of all was just seeing him there among us and having him give us a couple of words on our wedding day." Although Pienaar was subsequently jettisoned by the incoming Springboks' coach, Andre Markgraaf - who was understood to be unhappy with the World Cup winning captain's pivotal role in rugby union's switch to professionalism - Mandela, as you might expect, fully supported his new chum's revolutionary zeal.

"The president invited Nerine and I to lunch at his private retreat before we left for England in '97. That's a day I'll always remember. "It was fantastic just to talk to him, to hear his views on the world, on life, to feel wanted by your president. As everyone probably knows, he has a tremendously impressive aura. His easiness, his compassion, his humility. if he'd asked me to stay, I would have done so. But after we talked, Mr Mandela gave me his blessing, though he said he hoped I would come back some day and play a role in the South Africa of the future."

The president continued to follow the events of Pienaar's life from afar. Following the birth of their first son, Jean, the Pienaar's were awoken at 4am one morning. "Nerine picked up the phone - at first I thought it might be a nuisance call - and said: 'You had better take this, it's Nelson Mandela'. "He started chatting to me as if it was a completely normal situation. Then he congratulated me on my son and asked if he could be a godfather. I thought about it- for a split second - and yelled, 'YES!"

Although his passionate advocacy of professionalism probably cost him the head coaching position with the Springboks, Pienaar is of no mind to apologise for his high-profile role in shredding the last vestiges of shamateurism from the game. "My only regret is that the revolution came too late for some fantastic South African players. Not only on the professional stage, but on the political stage, too.

"The 1981 team, for instance, was absolutely wonderful. Rugby is a professional sport and there's no going back. "The days when players mingled in the bar afterwards may be gone but what happened was change for good, just as what happened in South Africa was change for good." rphilip@thenational.ae