Time for sport to pay Madiba back

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Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd at Soccer City stadium during the closing ceremony for the 2010 World Cup. Picture: Michael Kooren/Files

Johannesburg – It had been a long Saturday, which began with us watching live television pictures from Pretoria’s Union Buildings of President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.

As part of the countrywide celebrations, Bafana Bafana were to take on Zambia at FNB Stadium in the afternoon, in a friendly branded the “Nelson Mandela Inauguration match”.

Things didn’t go as planned for South Africa, however, with the neighbouring Chipolopolo determined to sour the festive mood in the country. They were highly charged up and, unsurprisingly, took the lead, which silenced a sold-out crowd.

Then the TV pictures showed us a helicopter hovering above the match venue. It was the freshly inaugurated President Mandela arriving at the game. The game suddenly turned on its head, Bafana scoring two quick goals to ensure that, on this historic day, almost everything was perfect.

I was a teenager then, and it was on that day – May 10, 1994 – that I first heard the term “Madiba Magic”. The greatest statesman the world has seen had turned on the magic, rubbing it off on the Bafana players and his mere presence inspiring them to lift their performance.

A year later he was at Ellis Park to watch the national rugby side, which in many respects had embodied the cruel system he had fought, clinch the World Cup for the first time. I was young then, but the picture has remained in memory since.

In 1996, he returned to FNB Stadium to see Bafana lift their first – and sadly only – African Nations Cup title.

This was the effect President Mandela had on sport in general – and the glowing tributes from the global stars bear testimony.

But for me, the greatest contribution he made to South African sport was the role he played in getting the country to host the 2010 World Cup.

On the eve of the announcement of the successful bidder, Mandela, members of government and the local organising committee spent frantic hours at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich, uncertain how the vote would go.

Even after Mandela had made a case for South Africa, it was still tense on that Friday afternoon in 2004.

But such was his demeanour and influence that it would have been amiss had SA not been the name in the envelope opened by Sepp Blatter during the announcement the following day.

That picture of Mandela holding aloft the World Cup trophy will remain iconic for years to come because many of us will probably not live to see another such tournament on this continent.

The fact that an ailing Mandela was last seen in public waving to the crowd at Soccer City, on World Cup final day in July 2010, also tells a story of his close association with sport.

In that regard, sport should ask itself if, a upside from the photo opportunities and handshakes, it has done enough to live up to Mandela’s ideals.

I would say, as in every aspect of the South African life, strides have been made, but much more can still be done.

There’s unity in singing the national anthem, and that bit where at certain rugby games the English and Afrikaans part would get louder, has almost diminished. No longer do we see old apartheid flags at our stadiums. The majority of South Africans have indeed been wowed by the Madiba Magic.

But however gratifying it is to see all the progress made from the pariah days when South Africa could not compete internationally, some things could be done better as a true tribute to Madiba.

Administrators could stop bickering for power, under the false belief that sport is about themselves and their pockets.

Some sporting codes, not least those who officially applied racial discrimination in the past, could help fast-track transformation by being honestly inclusive, and not seeking to perpetuate the old order.

Madiba had many obstacles in his journey, and even in sport he wasn’t always successful in convincing everyone – rugby boss Louis Luyt, for instance, once took him to court.

But now that this giant has fallen, the greatest homage domestic sport can pay him is ensuring the ideals he lived by are visibly implemented. Otherwise sport, aside from the photo opportunities, would have drawn little else than “Madiba Magic” from this great life.

*Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng

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