“The state of the city, the nation or the world can invest a sporting event with dramatic intensity such as is reached in few theatres,” the legendary Trinidadian historian, patriot and cricket writer CLR James once wrote. World Cup football matches have triggered wars (El Salvador-Honduras in 1968) or been postponed in order to avoid them (the Sudan-Chad match of last May). The 1956 Olympic water polo clash between Hungary and the Soviet Union, played one month after Soviet tanks crushed a popular uprising in Budapest, was so violent that the water was tinted red with players’ blood by the time officials called it off.
The June 24, 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and Australia was similarly epic, though not because of any enmity between the two countries. The game hosted an iconic moment heralding South Africa’s inclusive post-apartheid nationhood: President Nelson Mandela striding onto the field at Ellis Park in a Springbok rugby jersey, erstwhile symbol of the old regime, while the mostly Afrikaans crowd chanted “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!” – lionising a man most of them would have gladly seen hang just a few years earlier.
John Carlin’s extraordinary new book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, provides a gripping, intimate account of the game, the events preceding it and their deep relevance to Mandela’s political project. Carlin served as the South Africa bureau chief for The Independent from 1989 to 1995, during which time he forged a foreign journalist’s intimacy with a wide range of key players across the political spectrum. Here he revisits that period, debriefing Mandela, his allies (including one of his bodyguards), key political and military figures in the apartheid establishment and even the rugby players themselves.
South Africa’s peaceful transformation is often hailed as a “miracle” attributable entirely to Mandela’s idealism and personal capacity for compromise and forgiveness. But Mandela never compromised on his core demand of democratic majority rule, and his genius lay not so much in forgiving his enemies as in disarming and outmanoeuvring them. His achievements, including the transformation consecrated by the famous rugby final, were the result of a clear-eyed political strategy. Today Mandela is often invoked as an exemplar of non-violent change – nowhere more frequently than in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, whose partisans love to bemoan the absence of a “Palestinian Mandela”, as if such a figure would be more willing than the current Palestinian leadership to accept Israel’s terms. But the South African Mandela has always insisted that in Palestine, just as in South Africa, justice is the key to peace and reconciliation.