All but ignored by most Americans, the most significant, uplifting sporting event of 1995 came to its bloody conclusion last Saturday. Bloody because the sport was rugby, a tackling game of scrums and cauliflower ears that is little played in the U.S. but highly popular in much of the rest of the world. Uplifting? The host country, South Africa, which was barred from the first two Rugby World Cups, in 1987 and '91, because of its policy of apartheid, unexpectedly defeated powerful New Zealand 15-12 in overtime in the finals. The win sent the 62,000 spectators in Johannesburg into a dancing, singing frenzy that spilled into the streets, the culmination of a nationwide rugby high that had lasted most of June. Significant? Well, for the first time in the troubled history of Africa's southernmost nation, whites and nonwhites found themselves united by a sport. They rooted as one people: in rugby, indivisible.
The championship, wondrous as it was, was in truth froth on the beer. "The good has all been done," said retired star Naas Botha, perhaps the greatest rugby player in South African history, before the 19-15 semifinal victory by the Springboks (as the South African team is nicknamed) over France. "When we beat the world champions [the Australians] in the opening match, it brought the whole country together. It doesn't matter what we do the rest of the way."
Before this tournament rugby had always been considered a white man's sport in South Africa. It had been, in fact, a symbol of white Afrikaner unity and pride dating back to the Boer War. The 1995 Springboks have only one nonwhite player on their roster, Chester Williams, and while Williams is probably the most popular player on the team, one man does not make a rainbow coalition.
The face of South African rugby at its highest levels remained predominantly white until President Nelson Mandela—great reconciler that he is—saw the Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to effect change. The event, after all, was the most important international championship to be hosted by South Africa since the fall of apartheid. And it was viewed as a preliminary test of the viability of a Cape Town bid to host the Summer Olympics, perhaps as early as 2004, a bid that Mandela enthusiastically supports.
So in May, Mandela reached out. He visited the team's training camp. He shook hands with the players, patted their strapping backs and made a point of putting on a Springbok cap. This was no casual gesture. The nickname Springbok is controversial in South Africa, strongly associated with the proapartheid white regimes of the past. Then Mandela pointedly told the rugby players, "The whole nation is behind you."
The Springboks took that message to heart. The day before their game against Australia the players requested a tour of Robben Island, off Cape Town, where Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years. They visited his former cell and afterward vowed to dedicate their efforts in the World Cup to their president. The next day, in a match that galvanized the country, the Springboks upended the Aussies 27-18. According to one poll, 44% of the nine million residents of Soweto, the black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, said they watched the opening game, despite the fact that Williams was out with an injury.
The enthusiasm grew from there. White South Africa's sport became, overnight, South Africa's sport. A headline in The Sowetan boasted: AMABOKOBOKO, Zulu for "Our Springboks." During a speech Mandela gave in the town of Ezakheni before the match against France, the president told his primarily black audience, "This cap does honor to our boys. I ask you to stand by them tomorrow because they are our kind."
Our kind. Not black. Not white. South African. The rugby team became a symbol for the country as a whole—resolute in the face of great odds—not unlike the U.S. Olympic hockey phenomenon of 1980, when the young gold medalists who beat the Soviets came to symbolize a spirit of renewal in America. The Springboks have even begun a campaign designed to encourage black township residents to pay their utility bills, so that the rebuilding of all of South Africa could begin.
"Rugby, this great, stupid, odd, confused game," wrote one former Springbok, Nick Mallett, "had given us its best attribute: its ability to unite different characters and groups and create respect, affection and unity."
Given the right time and place, sport is capable of starting such a process in a society. It is only a start, of course. The hard work always lies ahead, after the crowds have dispersed and the headlines have ceased. South Africa's racial and economic woes are not behind it. Far from it. But thanks to the common ground supplied by a rugby pitch, those problems appear less imposing than they did only a month ago.