Nishad Pai Vaidya revisits the iconic Nelson Mandela’s connections with cricket and how he used a universal language to bond people.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela
When Nelson Mandela set out to unite a nation that was in danger of a collapse, he used a language most people understand and is deeply rooted in their hearts — sport.
The “Springboks” were seen as a symbol of apartheid. But, Mandela realised the power of sport and used Rugby to unite South Africa in support of their team at the World Cup. Nation building is about getting people together on an intangible plane that manifests into reality over time. When Mandela, draped in the Springbok jersey, strode out to greet the teams ahead of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at Johannesburg, the whole crowd cheered, “Nelson! Nelson!”
Not many would have imagined this a few years before his ascendancy to power.
One couldn’t keep him away from the people. Mandela’s smiling face welcomed tourists on South Africa’s sporting grounds. Visiting teams warmed up to him. He never came across as a dignitary; he was warm, down to earth, smiling and tugged the hearts of teams visiting South Africa.
Daren Ganga, the former West Indies batsman, recalls an interesting incident. In 1998-99, he toured South Africa with the West Indies side and celebrated his 20th birthday during the visit. After the game, he returned to his room and received a phone call which said, “Mr. Ganga, I have the President on the line to talk you.” Ganga was stunned hear Mandela wishing him Happy Birthday!
“He [Mandela] said he was calling to wish me a Happy Birthday. In total amazement, I enquired politely whether I was indeed speaking to the President of South Africa, and he confirmed with a yes. Needless to say, I was in total shock and struggled to keep my wits about me during this conversation, but I will never forget the words spoken to me that day, or the humility of the man who spoke them.” Mandela, in fact, also organised a cake and champagne for the young man.
Ganga was a tyro then and was walking into a league of men. Who would have expected a gesture of such warmth from the President of the nation you are up against on the cricket field? This is just a small example of why the world embraced Mandela and his ideology. His aura transcended the South African nation and engulfed the world. It also enveloped the sporting spheres.
There was a human touch, to go with the forthright determination to win a battle. For 27 long years, he languished in captivity, yet he had the strength to come out and forgive the very same people who were responsible for his predicament. Thus, a country that was divided on racial lines united under his charm and accepted him as their leader. It was that ability to forgive that once again came into focus when the country was rocked by the fall of one its icons.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. The match-fixing scandal had rocked the cricket world and Hansie Cronje, the South African captain, accepted his wrongdoings in a tearful admission before the world. Cronje was more than a cricketer in South Africa, he was an icon in the post-apartheid era. So, his fall from grace broke the heart of a realm of people that looked up to him. Amidst that gloom, Mandela personally went and met the man. Cronje’s brother Frans told BBC, “Hansie felt like he had let everyone down. Madiba [Mandela] being the first one.”
Mandela was firm, yet encouraged Cronje to bounce back. He said, “It is my duty to say to him ‘you have made a serious mistake. This is a young man who focused the attention of the world to South Africa, as far as cricket is concerned. The message I gave him is that a person can turn tragedy into triumph, and he has that capacity. I wanted to encourage him without in any way excusing what he has done if these allegations turn out to be true. If they are true then I’m sure he is prepared to take what is going to come. He can still be a role model.”
While Mandela did not condone Cronje for his acts, he certainly showed that he could be accepted. Cronje did spend time away from the public eye, but returned to work well for a corporate. And, when he died in a plane crash, Mandela acknowledged that had he continued, he could have been a “role model of how one deals with adversity.”
This was what Mandela was all about. He has left behind a great legacy of values for the whole world, the sporting sphere as well. Even as the world is left poorer without his presence, he would continue to inspire people from all walks of life. Rest in Peace, Madiba!
Also on cricketcountry.com