Johannesburg – When Greg Minnaar, the World Champion mountain biker, learnt that Madiba had passed away, he was in his most favourite place in the world.
The Thistle Hotel in Pietermartizburg is a good, solid bar, and for many in the capital of KwaZulu-Natal, it is a place to celebrate, drown sorrows, meet friends and, on Thursday night, mourn the passing of a great man.
“I was out at dinner with a friend and his wife, and we went to the Thistle for a drink, as you do on a Thursday,” said Minnaar.
“It was really weird. I was sitting on the bar with my back to the TV screen. One of the barman came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Greg, have you seen this?’ He pointed to the message that was going across the bottom of the screen. My heart just dropped. It felt like a family member had died.
“Everyone in the pub, a very working class pub, full of ordinary South Africans, mostly white, was stunned. It was just really awesome to see how each one of them embraced this massive loss. It hit everyone so deeply.”
Minnaar won the UCI downhill mountain bike World Championships in Pietermartizburg on September 1 with a ride fuelled by emotion and pride.
He’d had an indifferent season up until the World Championships in his home town, but took strength being in front of his people to become world champion for the third time.
He had a special helmet made for the race, with the face of Madiba painted on the top and one of his quotes from A Long Walk to Freedom inscribed around it.
“The idea for the helmet came around the emotion of being back at home in South Africa at the world champs,” said Minnaar.
“His health was poor and the country was thinking of him, but he was the man who defined the nation. He was our leader, and I could think of no better tribute to him – well, apart from winning the world champs as well, I suppose.
“I told my helmet company what I wanted. They always get the concept right. They took the quote I had chosen and wrapped it around the helmet. I chose green, gold and black, more for the colours of Nelson Mandela’s party than for the green and gold of the national colours.
“I wanted it to be for him.”
The quote was: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
“Those words were, for me, the essence of Madiba. He was all about sacrifice and building a new South Africa,” said Minnaar.
“When I first travelled overseas to race, I was quite young and didn’t really understand what it meant to be a South African in the big wide world; where we had come from and where we were going.
“It came to me more in my later years. You start to see how boxed in we were as a country, how isolated, how we were taught to think.
“We’ve become free to think for ourselves, to think of way bigger dreams than ever before. Our country was held back in so many ways.”
Minnaar is currently in Pietermaritzburg recovering from knee surgery. He is still in a brace and is hoping to get back on a bike within a month.
The first leg of the UCI World Cup will be held in Pietermartizburg in April and he is pushing hard to be ready for that.
Minnaar regularly meets up with the OneLife Crew, a group of his friends whose motto is “One life – live it”.
“Madiba was a OneLife Crew kind of guy,” said Minnaar.
“I think he would have been the leader of the OneLife guys. He still is.
“Put it this way, if it hadn’t been for Madiba, I wouldn’t have been able to win a world title in my own home town.
“He freed us and made us a part of the world again. He freed our souls.”