Carlin's first draft of history

When the Rugby World Cup final was played in Johannesburg in 1995, John Carlin, author of the book on which the Hollywood blockbuster Invictus is based, was <i>The Independent's</i> South Africa correspondent. This is his extraordinary report &ndash; written the day after that momentous game
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The Independent Online

As an image of humanity's better angels, Nelson Mandela, the 76-year-old president with the little boy's smile, handing over the gold trophy to his hero, the big blond captain of the Springbok team, will be hard to beat. The world watches in despair the spectacles of Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda, reminders of the viciousness, folly and petty-mindedness to which the species is endlessly prey. But the fairytale ending to the Rugby World Cup provided a welcome cup of cheer.

The match, sure, was a nail-biter. Tens of thousands of words have already been written dissecting the South African game-plan, extolling the physical commitment of the forwards and the ferocity of the backs' defence. The real reason South Africa won was that François Pienaar and his men were engaged in something far bigger than a game of rugby. They were fighting for a cause. And in Mandela they had a general they were ready to die for.

Of all sports rugby is perhaps the closest to war. You need skill – you need to shoot straight, run fast and think on your feet. (Joel Stransky, the one Jew in the team, showed skill in abundance and by scoring all South Africa's points he probably killed off once and for all the residual anti-Semitism that has long lingered in many Afrikaner – and some black – hearts.) But above all you need heart to win in top-class rugby, and because the South African team had the higher morale and the greater hunger, they did what England failed to do the previous week against New Zealand. Most rugby commentators would agree that, man for man, the South African team is no better than the English. They would probably agree too that, man for man, New Zealand are the world's strongest side. Few serious pundits gave South Africa much of a chance before Saturday's game. But they did a David on the All-Black Goliath because they kept the faith and they knew Mandela was with them.

Mandela, who wore the green Springbok cap to work all week, said before the match he had no doubt South Africa were going to win. He believed it with all the conviction of a man who spent 27 years in jail knowing, as he declared from the dock the day he was sentenced, that he would return. Pienaar said before the first World Cup game, the no-less remarkable triumph against Australia, that his team were going to win it for one man, Mandela. After Saturday's game Pienaar recounted the exchange with his president on the winner's podium: "He told me, thanks for all we've done for South Africa. I reciprocated, telling him we could never have done as much as he's done for South Africa." Meanwhile the crowd at Ellis Park, 95 per cent of them white, bawled in chorus, "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson! Viva Nelson!" Out in Johannesburg's affluent white suburbs the black domestics rushed out on to the streets and shouted, "We've done it! We've done it! We've done it!"

What they'd done, all South Africans, was something much greater than the sum of the 15 parts who achieved the heroic feat on the rugby field. They were celebrating their first-year-of-democracy birthday party. Mandela's inauguration as president in May the previous year marked the end of 350 years of tyranny. That was a happy day for black South Africans, a day of mixed feelings for the white minority. Nelson was a great guy, but would the African National Congress, the "Communist terrorists" now in government, resist the temptation of bringing true the nightmare white South Africans had been taught by their masters to endure, that they would do unto us as we had done unto them? No. With each passing day the ranks of the Afrikaner far right diminished as the truth dawned: that the ANC was not going to take away their language, their land, their religion.

The relationship between Mandela and Pienaar has become the symbol of the extraordinary bond, deeper than politics, that has developed between black and white South Africans. Six years ago, when the brutish P W Botha was still in power, South Africa had the potential to become the bloodiest place on earth. Blacks hated "the Boer"; they despised rugby, his sport. Whites feared the black man, battled viciously to stop him from ruining their sunny way of life.

A year ago, a few days before South Africa played England at rugby, Pienaar went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, an anxious young man about to meet his president for the first time. The two emerged smiling, Mandela looking on with fatherly indulgence as Pienaar promised to learn the new national anthem, the old song of black liberation, "Nkosi Sikelel'i". Since then they have met on numerous occasions, not least in Springbok dressing rooms before big games.

On Saturday the roles were reversed. Pienaar found himself, for 100 minutes, playing Father of the Nation. Mandela went to watch the match like countless boys in England watch football on Saturday afternoons, wearing his team's shirt with the number of his favourite player.

But let's not get too sentimental here. Mandela was playing politics. He sees his historic task during the four years that remain of his presidency to lay the foundations for South Africa's future prosperity. That means, to a great degree, persuading the whites they have a future in South Africa, that the rainbow nation is more than just a pretty slogan. Appalling economic inequities still linger; the murder rate remains seven times higher per capita than that of the United States; Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his right-wing Zulus continue to snarl menacingly from the sidelines. There's still work to be done before the country can be pronounced stable and secure. Wearing the green jersey, with its Springbok emblem so eloquent to Afrikaners of glories past, was a coldly calculated exercise in nation-building, a means perhaps of sweetening the pill ahead of measures that may hurt white taxpayers' pockets.

But it is a measure of the nobility of the man and his enterprise that he carried off the gesture as he did. Any other political leader would have come across as cheesy and insincere.

Mandela's performance on the rugby field on Saturday was a lesson to the world's politicians that it is possible to achieve a happy blend between pragmatism and principle. Pienaar, son of apartheid, teaches a fable of redemption and reconciliation. The 43 million South Africans – in Soweto, in Pretoria, in the Johannesburg suburb of Hyde Park – who danced together in celebration of Saturday's victory, provided the unhappy people and the unhappy countries of the world with the consoling reminder that things change, sometimes for the better.

Invictus is released nationwide on Friday. John Carlin's book, Playing with the Enemy, is published by Atlantic Books, priced £18.99