Durban – Say it IT isn’t so, the nation said on Thursday night. Only a select few can make sport seem so irrelevant, so minuscule, as Nelson Mandela did on Thursday night.
Just as we were lavishing praise on the Proteas for bullying the Indians at the Wanderers, the sad confirmation from down the road in Houghton reminded us that sport is just a game, a pastime.
Madiba’s torch has gone out, and South African sport has lost its celebrated twelfth man, it’s eternal Player 23. Politicians are always viewed with suspicion when they dabble in sports because, often, their motives are far from pure.
Not so Mandela. That one of his most iconic images remains that of him handing over the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar is testament to his ability to transcend boundaries. If you went to any South African township – aside from the Eastern Cape perhaps – in 1994, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knew who Pienaar, or Joel Stransky, or Kobus Wiese were.
But once Mandela made it cool to back the Bokke, the masses followed suit, embracing a confusing game, where you go backwards in order to advance forward.
I met Mandela’s struggle lawyer, George Bizos, at a charity cricket match recently. Bizos got extremely emotional as he told of how much emphasis Madiba placed on the ability of sport to unite a country that had been divided for so long.
Some cynical hacks view the power of “Madiba Magic” with suspicion, but it was uncanny how his mere presence often inspired our teams to reach heights previously not thought of.
And his impact went beyond these shores. I read a fascinating account in the British Daily Mail recently, by Jeff Powell, where Muhammad Ali, himself a bit of a struggle warrior, lavished rich praise on Mandela, confirming him as his lifelong hero.
Of course, Mandela was a boxer in his younger days, and the image of he and Ali trading jabs is one of the most powerful images of the 20th century. In the modern era of celebrity and razzmatazz, the terms hero and star are bandied about too loosely, but you would be hard pressed to find two bigger personalities.
Every time a sports team toured these shores, be it Liverpool, the All Blacks, the great Aussie cricket side of the 1990s, the first thing they wanted to organise was a meeting with Madiba. It was a rite of passage, and every single one of those great players was in awe in his presence.
The respect the sporting world has already shown at the news of his passing has been humbling for us as a country, because it reminded us of the global superstar we’d had in our midst.
The Ashes Test in Adelaide paused on Friday morning, in remembrance, and then exploded into a sustained round of applause. The Fifa World Cup draw in Brazil paused to salute the man we last saw smiling ahead of the 2010 World Cup final.
Over the next week, we can expect much more of the same at sport’s great arenas around the world, because that is the respect that he commands.
He may be gone, but Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and his impact on this country’s sporting landscape will never be forgotten, for his was one heck of an innings. We can only hope that he can still sprinkle some of the Madiba fairy dust from above.
Long live, Tata. Long live.