Reconciliation and the oval ball

One of my favorite Nelson Mandela moments was his brilliant conciliatory gesture when South Africa won the first post-Apartheid Rugby World Cup—donning a Springboks jersey (a symbol par excellance of Afrikaner cultural pride) and coming onto the field to join in the celebrations. I didn’t remember the story below, which gets at the beginnings of Mandela’s canny and graceful relation to the game.

Towards the end of his 27 years in jail, Nelson Mandela began to yearn for a hotplate. He was being well fed by this point, not least because he was the world’s most famous political prisoner. But his jailers gave him too much food for lunch and not enough for supper. He had taken to saving some of his mid-day meal until the evening, by which time it was cold, and he wanted something to heat it up.

The problem was that the officer in charge of Pollsmoor prison’s maximum-security “C” wing was prickly, insecure, uncomfortable talking in English and virtually allergic to black political prisoners. To get around him, Mr Mandela started reading about rugby, a sport he had never liked but which his jailer, like most Afrikaner men, adored. Then, when they met in a corridor, Mr Mandela immediately launched into a detailed discussion, in Afrikaans, about prop forwards, scrum halves and recent games. His jailer was so charmed that before he knew it he was barking at an underling to “go and get Mandela a hotplate!”

Originally published at

Add Your Comments