TOWARDS the end of his 27 years in jail, Nelson Mandela began to yearn for a hotplate. He was being well fed by this point, not least because he was the world’s most famous political prisoner. But his jailers gave him too much food for lunch and not enough for supper. He had taken to saving some of his mid-day meal until the evening, by which time it was cold, and he wanted something to heat it up.
The problem was that the officer in charge of Pollsmoor prison’s maximum-security “C” wing was prickly, insecure, uncomfortable talking in English and virtually allergic to black political prisoners. To get around him, Mr Mandela started reading about rugby, a sport he had never liked but which his jailer, like most Afrikaner men, adored. Then, when they met in a corridor, Mr Mandela immediately launched into a detailed discussion, in Afrikaans, about prop forwards, scrum halves and recent games. His jailer was so charmed that before he knew it he was barking at an underling to “go and get Mandela a hotplate!”
Mr Mandela’s story never fails to inspire. As a young man, he started an armed struggle against apartheid. It went nowhere, and he went to jail. While maturing behind bars, he decided that moral suasion might work where bombs had failed. It did. South Africa’s white rulers surrendered power without a civil war. Several books have been written about Mr Mandela’s crucial role in coaxing his countrymen towards a more civilised form of government. John Carlin’s is the first to tell the tale through the prism of sport.
This premise is not as odd as it sounds. It was not only Mr Mandela’s regal charm that won over white South Africans. It was the fact that he took the trouble to study and understand their culture. At a time when many blacks dismissed rugby as “the brutish, alien pastime of a brutish, alien people”, Mr Mandela saw it as a bridge across the racial chasm.
The game is not an incidental part of Afrikaner culture, like cricket is to the English. To many Afrikaners, who have grown up playing rough games on sun-baked ground so hard that every tumble draws blood, rugby is little short of everything. Mr Mandela knew that if he was to convince these people that one man, one vote would not mean catastrophe, he had to “address their hearts”, not their brains. If the fearsome terrorist on the other side of the negotiating table was a rugby fan, could he really be as bad as they thought?
Mr Carlin focuses on the decade after 1985, when most blacks thought the country was sliding into war. He draws on his experiences as the South Africa correspondent for the Independent, a British newspaper, during the transition to democracy. But the book does not climax, as a standard historical text might, with South Africa’s first proper multi-racial elections in 1994. Instead, it builds up to the rugby world cup final in 1995, which was held in South Africa and which the home team won.
This makes sense. Elections are all very well, but the moment when black South Africans started cheering for a mostly-white rugby team, when white fans in the stadium tried gamely to sing a Zulu miners’ anthem and when Mr Mandela donned the green jersey of the Springboks—“It was the moment I realised that there really was a chance this country could work,” gushes a teary-eyed rugby official.
Mr Carlin brings the story alive by telling it through the eyes of a broad spectrum of South Africans. Among these is Desmond Tutu, the Nobel prize-winning archbishop of Cape Town, who was in America on the day of the final and had to find a bar that would let him watch it at an ungodly hour of the morning. Also, Niel Barnard, a former chief spy for the apartheid regime, who used to keep a thick file on Bishop Tutu. And Justice Bekebeke, a young township firebrand who killed a policeman for firing at a child during a riot and spent time on death row.
Mr Bekebeke is the most interesting of Mr Carlin’s portraits. On the morning of the match, he is still too bitter about a lifetime of injustice to support the Springboks. But then, something changes. The surging emotion of the event sweeps him along. “I just had to give up, to surrender,” he says, “And I said to myself, well, this is the new reality. There is no going back: the South African team is now my team, whoever they are, whatever their colour.”
Many writers reveal the nuts and bolts of South Africa’s transformation to non- racial democracy. But few capture the spirit as well as Mr Carlin.