SUN CITY, South Africa – Reflecting Nelson Mandela’s vision for sport in his country, South Africa’s multi-racial rugby sevens team huddled Saturday in the middle of the stadium named after the anti-apartheid leader, raised their hands to the skies and joined them together.
The South Africans then won their game.
Mandela would have surely enjoyed it, just as he famously delighted in the Springboks’ famous rugby World Cup victory in 1995 or the country’s historic hosting of the 2010 football World Cup.
In the stands at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, blacks and whites waved their country’s colorful flag and loudly cheered scores by the dreadlocked Cecil Afrika and the team’s blond captain, Kyle Brown.
“It’s a real honour and privilege to be a South African today,” Brown said, apologizing that he wasn’t able to give — in his eyes — a more poetic tribute to former president Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95.
Brown said he would have liked to give a better description of what Mandela meant to South Africa. In fact, it was more incisive than he thought.
South African sport is now proud, and it wasn’t always.
For decades it was instead splintered by racism like every aspect of South Africa’s apartheid-era society. Black players were excluded and white ones vilified for their perceived connection to a racist regime. Fans at home turned on their own national teams until Mandela told them to unite.
So, while mourning the loss of the nation’s beloved father figure, South Africa has decided its sporting events — so central to the country’s new unity — will go on over the next days as a proud celebration of Mandela’s inspiring legacy.
South Africans will play for Mandela; rugby players, footballers, cricketers and more.
From the international rugby sevens tournament in Port Elizabeth to a big domestic football cup final in the northern city of Nelspruit later Saturday and a cricket game between South Africa and visiting India in the east coast city of Durban on Sunday.
“We celebrate a life well lived,” sports minister Fikile Mbalula said, announcing a plan for games for the next week. “It’s through sport that we do not differentiate between white and black but are identified as one nation. This is through the legacy that Mandela achieved.”
Mbalula said that the national anthem — a mix of five different languages — would be sung at every match or tournament until Mandela is buried in a state funeral near his rural South African home on Dec. 15. That day, next Sunday, no sport will take place.
But until then, the games will go ahead with their tributes, moments of silence and players wearing black armbands for Mandela. And fans coming together. Every match will be dedicated to Mandela, Mbalula said.
In Port Elizabeth, in Mandela’s home Eastern Cape province, the South African rugby players wore their black bands on their sleeves across an image of the country’s multicolored flag as they beat Canada in their opening game of the international World Sevens Series event.
Supporters held up Mandela banners, too, one with “Madiboks” — a play on the words Madiba, the affectionate clan name South Africans know Mandela by, and the name of South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks.
A young boy had one huge sign with a famous quote from Mandela emblazoned across it in green and gold letters, the colours worn by South Africa’s national sporting teams: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” the message read.
“His memory will not only inspire us in our current series against India,” South Africa cricket captain A.B. de Villiers said, “but also to always stick together as a team representing a nation into the future. We will miss him.”
Irvin Khoza, chairman of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, urged players and fans to honour Mandela with every game.
“Ours is a special generation that saw Madiba in action,” Khoza said.
Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP