Madiba always had the Midas touch when it came to South Africa’s rugby players — and South Africa’s on-field rugby fortunes.
The Springboks have always appreciated him. They have loved his contribution to the game as their most influential team-mate. They have never taken him for granted. I know this from experience when working with them.
Any audience with the great man was seen as a privilege. There was never the assumption that it would happen. There was never anything but gratitude when Madiba would invite the Springboks to his Houghton residence.
The players were respectful but also delightful when interacting with a man who engaged with the squad as a wise, but loving, elder would his grandsons.
There was always kindness and care when the Boks were in Madiba’s company. The new members would be awed. Those who had interacted were never dulled by the prospect of being there again. There was always a photo opportunity, and an encouraging word. The kindness was never assumed and the opportunity never abused.
It really was all about the players for Madiba. They were his boys.
He should not have cared about rugby after Sarfu president Louis Luyt declared war on the South African government in 1997 and forced Madiba to testify in court as to why he, as the country’s president, had sanctioned a commission of inquiry into the sport. The accusation was Madiba had not properly applied his mind. It was crass. It deserved retaliation, but Madiba resisted.
He never punished the sport for the actions of an individual. He saved the Springbok emblem, despite the history of white South African rugby. He believed the emblem could symbolise rugby excellence in a united South Africa.
The players also believed this.
Madiba had a unique way with the Springboks. He was especially fond of 1995 World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar. He would always enquire about Francois. He asked about Pienaar’s health because of the assumption that rugby was a brotherhood in which one Bok cared about the next, regardless of generation. He assumed today’s Bok knew the history of who went before – and cared.
Madiba always had an anecdote, told with understatement but with passion. He encouraged humility and never spoke at the expense of the opposition.
He took joy from any Bok win but mostly he took joy from the Springboks’ participation. The game was about opportunity: to play and to showcase their qualities as men who were leaders because of the influence of sport.
Madiba urged players to be thankful for their natural talents, to be respectful to work ethic and be mindful that victory was not always in the on-field result. The Boks, in my experience, were always embraced with equal affection.
Madiba’s office had invited a group of senior Springbok players, management and their partners to his 85th birthday in 2003. Bill Clinton was there. Bono was there. Madiba’s family and closest comrades were there.
The Boks were late because the Test against New Zealand, at Loftus, had only finished at 7pm and even with a police escort the Boks could only make it to his celebration just after 8:30pm. The Boks, mindful of any interruption, tried to slip in through the back, but Madiba was having none of it. They were announced on entry and given a rousing applause. The irony was that the All Blacks had just inflicted the biggest defeat on the Boks in South Africa in the history of their battles. The Boks had lost 52-16.
The cheers of Madiba and his guests embarrassed and humbled the players and management present on a night when all expected jeers because of the on-field humiliation.
It was the Madiba way. His smile was about seeing his boys in green and gold. It was not about the result. It never was.
The Saru officials and a decade of Springbok players and management should never forget the efforts of Madiba’s personal assistant Zelda la Grange and Springbok public relations manager Annelee Murray, who between them were instrumental in ensuring regular contact between Madiba and his boys.
Logistically, these two made the seemingly impossible possible in spite of presidential and team schedules.
In my time as publisher of SA Rugby magazine, Zelda and Annelee also accommodated a photo session with Madiba to celebrate the Springboks’ centenary year in 2006.
It was a historic moment when Bok coach (in 2006) Jake White and captain John Smit presented Madiba with a Springbok blazer, helped him put it on for purposes of the cover shoot and thanked him for always being an inspiration to the Boks and for saving the Bok emblem.
Only Madiba, Jake, John, Zelda, Annelee, the photographer and myself were at the 45-minute private session.
It was a privilege to be in the room that day, as it was to be in a room with awed Boks and Madiba at his 85th birthday celebration. Jake and John
said the biggest thank you they could give Madiba was to bring him back the World Cup from Paris in 2007.
Jake told Madiba the Boks owed him a new story and another hoist of the cup. A year later Jake and John delivered on their promise.
Madiba welcomed them with the cup, but the welcome would have been as kind and spirited had they been eliminated in the first round.
It was the Madiba way.