Playing The Enemy, by John Carlin

Mandela tries – and converts

Reviewed,Raymond Whitaker
Thursday 20 October 2011 13:05

The photograph on the cover shows a moment that even those who have never been to South Africa, or witnessed a rugby match, would recognise as iconic. Nelson Mandela, the black revolutionary who emerged from 27 years in prison to become president, is handing the rugby World Cup to François Pienaar, a blonde giant who might have been chosen by Central Casting to represent white Afrikaner domination. Both men are wearing the Springbok rugby shirt, once a hated symbol of that domination.

John Carlin was this newspaper's correspondent in South Africa from 1989 to 1995, a period that spanned Mandela's release, the negotiations that brought apartheid to an end, the first free elections in 1994 and the final of the World Cup. Not only did he gain a better understanding of South African society than almost any other foreign correspondent; Mandela became his friend. Nobody can expect him to treat the old man entirely dispassionately, but nobody else would have had the access that Carlin enjoyed in writing this account, both to Mandela's own thoughts and to central figures in the events.

The book's theme is the South African "miracle": the negotiated revolution that saw apartheid give way to majority rule without the bloodbath many expected. Key to that process, Carlin believes, was Mandela's decision in prison that he needed to woo his Afikaner adversaries. He learned Afrikaans to win over a harsh warder; he mugged up on rugby, the Afrikaners' "secular religion". No sanction against apartheid hurt more than being deprived of Springbok rugby, in which Afrikaners could compete against the world. The yearning to be accepted once more on the rugby pitch played its part in bringing about change.

But as Mandela was winning over his captors with a formidable combination of natural authority, charm and a refusal to yield on principles, a potential race war was looming. His release in 1990 did nothing to stop bloodshed in black townships; it intensified, as white right-wingers talked openly of a coup.

One of the most dramatic moments is Mandela's encounter with Constand Viljoen, the retired military chief at the head of diehard whites. Again he disarmed a suspicious Afrikaner, getting him to agree there could be "no winner" in a war. But even after his election, Mandela remained conscious of the need to gain white acceptance. The World Cup furnished the means. Having persuaded his own side to let the rugby team keep the hated Springbok emblem, the president needed political payback. It came in the form of the Afrikaner players learning to sing the "black" half of the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Mandela met the squad, and began talking of "my boys", but most of black South Africa remained indifferent. That started to change as the Springboks marched to the final: the excitement of white followers infected the black majority.

When the president made his sensational appearance in a Springbok shirt at the final against the All Blacks, the overwhelmingly white, Afrikaner crowd chanted his name. When the team won against the odds, the whole of South Africa went wild. Afrikaners believed Mandela had won them the World Cup. When he thanked Pienaar for what he had done for "our country", the Springbok captain replied: "No, Mr President. Thank you very much for what you have done for our country." From that moment, Viljoen says, his doubts at having abandoned the threat of war were dispelled. It is just one of many eloquent testimonies in the book to the magical Mandela effect.

Perhaps understandably, Carlin does not find room for the belief in New Zealand that the food poisoning suffered by many All Blacks on the day of the final was no accident. But he quotes the French player, Abdelatif Benazzi, whose try would have beaten the Springboks in the semi-final had it been allowed. At the final, Benazzi cried: "I knew... that something more important was happening... than victory or defeat in a game of rugby". Amen to that.

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