Francois Pienaar used simple words to describe Nelson Mandela, calling the inspiring anti-apartheid leader and role model for millions “my president and my example.”
The former South Africa rugby captain was the sportsman who perhaps knew Mandela best and shared a podium with him at the 1995
World Cup final to form a defining image of white and black united in a newly democratic and victorious country.
Mandela died on Thursday at 95, sending South Africa and millions around the world into mourning.
“Nelson Mandela was the most extraordinary and incredible human being,” Pienaar said on Friday in a statement, “not only because he united his country when such a task seemed impossible but also because, through his unique humanity, he inspired hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
“I will always be profoundly grateful for the personal role Nelson Mandela has played in my life as my president and my example.”
The relationship between Mandela, the black former political prisoner turned president, and Pienaar, the blond Afrikaans rugby player from a conservative white background, underpinned South Africa's fairytale at its World Cup nearly two decades ago. They were already close by the time it culminated with Mandela handing the golden World Cup trophy over to Pienaar after South Africa's triumph over New Zealand, patting the captain lightly on the shoulder and thanking him for what he had done for his country.
It was then that South Africans believed they had broken down the last of their racial barriers - once represented by the all-white Springboks teams - and the scene is enshrined as one of sport's most poignant moments.
“It was my great fortune and privilege to receive the Webb Ellis Cup from Madiba at the conclusion of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg,” Pienaar said, “creating what has become an iconic image of national success, unity and reconciliation that resonates with all South Africans.”
Pienaar has kept a low profile since Mandela's passing was announced late Thursday by South African President Jacob Zuma, and released Friday's statement through the South African Rugby Union. But he has previously spoken of the time he spent with Mandela through the four weeks of the rugby tournament that shaped an enormous part of both their lives.
Mandela would visit the Springboks at training and regularly called Pienaar to check up on the team, according to the player. But, Mandela appearing at the final at Johannesburg's cauldron-like Ellis Park in front of 65,000 supporters wearing one of Pienaar's jerseys with his No. 6 on the back was something the Springboks captain said he knew nothing about.
Pienaar has described how he then decided not to sing South Africa's national anthem at the game because he was so emotional seeing Mandela in his shirt he thought he might lose all his focus if he sang one line. – Sapa-AP