Francois South African Rugby

April 20, 2017
Why I won t support the
Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and Nelson MandlaPienaar receives the 1995 rugby World Cup from Mandela: 'During those six weeks what happened was incredible.' Photograph: Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images

Among certain white communities in apartheid South Africa, it was taken for granted that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist who must remain behind bars. That was drummed into the young François Pienaar, who would one day welcome Mandela to his wedding and name him as godfather to his two sons.

The men came together when Pienaar captained South Africa to victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. When the blond Afrikaner shook hands with the black freedom fighter turned president, they instantly forged one of the country's defining images of racial unity.

"François here is the symbol of reconciliation, " said Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow prisoner of Mandela on Robben Island, when he shared a platform with Pienaar at the One Young World summit in Johannesburg last October.

In an interview with the Observer, Pienaar recalled the hardline white attitudes that shaped his childhood. "In my little world, I grew up in an Afrikaner community, went to an Afrikaner school, spoke only Afrikaans. Children were seen and not heard and you believed the publicity of the day, " he said. "Obviously the press told the stories that the ruling party of the day in particular wanted to be told.

"I remember when I heard Nelson Mandela's name mentioned at barbecues or dinner parties, the words 'terrorist' or 'bad man' was an umbilical cord almost to his name. As a young kid I wish I'd had questions about it, but I never did. I just thought that guy's maybe not a good guy, because sadly we didn't engage with our parents.

"You didn't ask questions like why black kids don't go to school with you, why is it just all white? That's how you grew up, which is very wrong and very sad. I wish I'd had the courage of conviction to ask questions, but I didn't. It's about exposure."

It was only when Pienaar went to university on a sports scholarship that he found himself exposed to different cultures, speaking English and having debates about politics and the country's future. "We'd just gone through 1985, a very dark year in South Africa's history, so it was topical at university. There were talks and rumours about Mr Mandela being released and white South Africans in particular feared the worst.

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