Sports-mad South Africa saluted Nelson Mandela over the weekend with smiles and moments of silence in honor of the late anti-apartheid leader, who inspired people to pursue the impossible from politics to the playing field.
The tributes stretched across the sporting spectrum, from club cricket and fun runs to top fixtures, such as a League Cup final between Platinum Stars and Orlando Pirates, the Soweto giants believed to have been Mandela’s favorite soccer side.
Saturday’s Cup final before a 40,000 crowd in the northeast city of Nelspruit was preceded by a moment of silence in honour of South Africa’s first black president, whose early sporting prowess, particularly in boxing and soccer, was cut short when he was jailed for 27 years by the apartheid government.
A cricket one-day international against India in Durban went ahead as planned on Sunday after talks with the government over whether to postpone it as a mark of respect.
It too included tributes to Mandela – known affectionately by his clan name “Madiba” – reflecting his belief in the power of sport to unite divided peoples.
Many recalled Mandela’s central role in arguably South Africa’s greatest sporting triumph – winning the 1995 rugby World Cup just one year after the multiracial elections that ended decades of white-minority rule.
“I always love to refer to Madiba as the unofficial captain of all our sports teams,” said Joel Stransky, the fly-half who kicked the last-gasp drop-goal to clinch the final, unleashing a wave of ecstasy on a still-divided nation.
Thousands in running clubs across the country held minutes of silence for the 95-year-old, and in Johannesburg changed their routes to take in his upscale home, now a flower-festooned site of international pilgrimage.
“He’s like the father of all our sports,” said Bruce Fordyce, South Africa’s greatest ultra-marathon runner who met Mandela on several occasions. “Every sportsman he ever met, he reminded you that he was a boxer.”