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One team. One country: how sport helped Mandela unite his nation

THE haunting anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa) rarely fails to bring a lump to my throat.

Nelson Mandela, in a Springboks jersey, presents the Webb Ellis Trophy to the South Africa captain Francois Pienaar in 1995.
Nelson Mandela, in a Springboks jersey, presents the Webb Ellis Trophy to the South Africa captain Francois Pienaar in 1995.

It evokes the memory of South Africa's 1995 World Cup-winning squad learning all the words - Afrikaners singing in a seminal moment of unity. It evokes the memory of Nelson Mandela's emotional presentation of the Webb Ellis Trophy to Francois Pienaar when he said: "Francois, thank you for what you have done for our country."

And of the Springbok captain's inspired reply: "No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have done."

Madiba, to give him his Xhosa clan name, donned a Springbok shirt for that final, as South Africa made their first appearance in the tournament following exclusion from world sport. It is hard to overstate how repellent a symbol that jersey had become for his black countrymen. Segregated black-only pens at international matches were packed with South Africans cheering the opposition. Whoever they might be.

But we digress. By wearing the green shirt, Madiba made an eloquent statement, now acknowledged as a milestone in the seduction of the Afrikaner. "One team. One country" was the slogan for that Springbok squad - so improbable a message that Mandela was booed by his black compatriots for urging them to adopt it, and get behind the Boks. Yet he succeeded in seducing them too, despite a team with 14 whites and only one black player (Chester Williams) lining up in the final.

Sport has been fundamental in changing South Africa and the way it is now perceived in the world. Indeed, notwithstanding the privilege of reporting a catalogue of outstanding Scottish sporting achievements worldwide, I guess I am prouder of what sport has done to change lives by helping to end apartheid. It's almost impossible for us to conceive how hurtful isolation from world sport must have been for South Africa, and for athletes on both sides.

Being ostracised by the global community finally brought four evil decades of white supremacy to an end. Depriving the country of competition succeeded where trade sanctions and government pleas had failed. And only afterwards could we really put the sporting issues in perspective.

Apartheid drove the white Zola Budd to Britain, and the black Sydney Maree to the US. Their lives are still tortured by the roads it sent them down. One of the most compelling interviews I ever conducted was with Maree, when he ran the Princes Street Mile in Edinburgh. He was the son of a political prisoner, an inmate of Robben Island, jailed with Mandela. His parents dared not even call Sydney by his real name.

His father, Ambition Muhle, ordered his mother to give their son another name for safety. They were forced off their land and driven into the homelands, to a barren plot where the nearest water (a tap serving 15 families) was half-a-mile away.

It was fertile soil for breeding more footsoldiers of the African National Congress but running to fetch water nurtured a champion. Maree fled to the USA, gained an economics degree and US citizenship. When he shared a room with a white student at Villanova, it was, he told me: "The closest I had been to a white man. I used to lie awake just watching him breathing, to see if he was different. And I watched how hard he studied, every move. I learned a lot."

For one week in 1983 Maree held the world 1500 metres record, interrupting the five-year reign of Steve Ovett. In Edinburgh he revealed for the first time the moving story of his late father: "We could never visit him, and he even told my mother to remarry, to get on with her life."

He died, aged 53, as Maree travelled to Seoul to make his Olympic debut for the US (he finished fifth in the 5000m). "The death certificate said sugar diabetes," he told me. "They claimed he had not taken his medication and buried him immediately. We heard too late to attend his funeral. There remains a big question mark."

Maree finally dared to return to South Africa in 1995, becoming chief executive of an asset-management company and head of a government agency to promote black economic equality and transformation. He was convicted in a corruption case, in which his guilt seems far from certain. He spent 21 months in jail before his release nine months ago.

When the IOC invited South Africa to rejoin the Olympic movement in 1991, I interviewed Esther Brand, then the last South African (and only woman) to win an Olympic title. Brand was her team's oldest competitor when she cleared 1.67 metres to beat the British world record-holder, Sheila Lerwill, for high jump gold in Helsinki in 1952. South Africa sent a white-only team.

Brand kept the flame alive for 40 years, coaching the event (to blacks and whites) until her country was readmitted for Barcelona. Brand wept when Elana Meyer won 10,000m silver in 1992 and then took a lap of honour with the gold medallist, Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu - ebony and ivory in unison in one of sport's most uplifting moments.

I was present at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993, when a South African-born runner won the marathon - for the USA. South Africa had been excluded since the inaugural championships 10 years earlier and Mark Plaatjes' victory was a reminder that sporting isolation was as cruel to black athletes as to whites.

Barred from the 1984 and 1988 Olympics by South Africa's exclusion, Plaatjes sought asylum in the US. Citizenship was granted three weeks before the championships where he won for America, overtaking Luketz Swartbooi of Namibia in the final stages. The Afrikaner press, which so recently had despised the pair's colour, reported these medals, for the USA and neighbouring Namibia, under the heading: "Ons Seuns" - our boys.

I once interviewed the late Steve Tshwete, sports minster in Mandela's administration and an inmate with him on Robben Island. We were in Soweto for the opening of the township's first sports centre. On adjacent waste ground, beaten red earth mixed with shards of glass and the droppings of grazing goats. Barefoot kids kicked a football stuffed with newspaper and rags.

Tshwete, remarking that his country needed hundreds of such centres, nodded to the children, saying: "Sport takes these children from the streets, where they learn about drugs, knives, and how to kill with a gun."

Sport saved Africa from apartheid. Now it must save impoverished children whose lives contain little else.

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