The 1995 Rugby World Cup Finals
South Africa’s Joel Stransky (white shorts) drops the winning goal against New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup finals.
Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images
Before the start of the 1995 World Cup Finals against New Zealand, a mostly white audience of 63,000 at Ellis Park sang along as the Springboks led a new national anthem. It combined words from the “Die Stem” (the apartheid-era anthem, which had been subject to earlier protest) and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” an old pan-African liberation hymn from the anti-apartheid movement. When Mandela appeared in the stadium wearing the Springbok green, the mostly Afrikaner crowd shouted, “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!”
The game showcased Mandela’s work in the weeks leading up to the matches, setting the stage for a historic—and largely symbolic—show of national unity across the races for the whole world to see. In the match, the two teams finished regulation time tied 9-9 in a spirited match of archrivals. With seven minutes left in extra time, the South African team won with a drop goal by Joel Stransky to secure a 15-12 victory.
“The whole of South Africa erupted in celebration, Blacks as joyful as the whites,” wrote Martin Meredith in his biography,
Mandela. “Never before had Blacks had cause to show such pride in the efforts of their white countrymen. It was a moment of national fusion that Mandela had done much to inspire.”
A Moment of Symbolic Unity, With a Complicated Legacy
“When the final whistle blew, this country changed forever,” said team captain Pienaar years later, when Mandela died. While this may have been a gross overstatement to most Black South Africans who continued to suffer at the bottom rung of society in post-apartheid world, the reflected a deft effort by Mandela to use rugby to heal the nation’s wounds.
To many Black South Africans, the Springboks continue to represent a brutal apartheid regime. The team had just one Black player in the 1995 matches, and had only six in 2019 when it won the World Cup over England with its first Black captain, Siyi Kolisi. “Just as Mandela’s gesture in 1995 was hailed as a metaphor for racial reconciliation in the nation, so rugby’s failure to transform is seen as a metaphor for disillusionment among Black people who gained political but not economic freedom,” wrote journalist David Smith in a 2015
Still, Mandela’s efforts to use rugby to bring together a new nation struggling to heal its old wounds became one of his signal achievements as president of South Africa—and a sign of what could be done for good through the power of sport. In 2000 at the Laureus World Sports awards, Mandela said, “Sports has the power to change the world. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.”