How Nelson Mandela used sport to transform South Africa's image

Sport's power to change lives and move nations is often overstated.

But Nelson Mandela may have been the first global leader to use sport as a tool to unite people and to redefine a country's international image.

It was central to his political beliefs, perhaps shaped while in jail on Robben Island. There, during his years of incarceration, he watched other political prisoners from the African National Congress playing football, at first covertly with bundled up rags, and then more openly in the prison yard.

The story of the Makana Football Association, formed using a Fifa rulebook found by one of the prisoners on Robben Island in the 1960s to help them pass the time in jail, is one of the most inspiring stories from South Africa's journey from racist state to rainbow nation.

And even before he was released from prison, Mandela had identified sport as a way of achieving a multi-racial country.

The announcement of Mandela's death was made by President Jacob Zuma

From his cell he ordered members of the ANC to disrupt Mike Gatting's rebel cricket tour to South Africa in 1990. At the same time he was negotiating secretly with the South African cricket authorities to encourage them to break from the apartheid regime and introduce mixed race teams.

It would be another eight years before Makhaya Ntini became the first black player to play for post-apartheid South Africa .

Around the time of his 80th birthday Mandela joked that maybe it was time for him to learn about cricket. He may not have understood the laws of the game but throughout all those years of South African sporting isolation he fully understood the political impact sport could have.

Nowhere was that more striking than during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Even more than cricket, rugby union was the sport of the white Afrikaans community.

The picture of him presenting the World Cup to Francois Pienaar, wearing the Springboks jersey, remains one of the most enduring images from his presidency. It's hard to believe now but at the time the green and gold shirt was still deeply associated with the racial struggle in South Africa.

Mandela defied his advisers to wear it, knowing in an instant how the gesture could do more for harmony and equality than years of talks.

Pienaar, like most young white men in the country, had grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist. And the Springboks captain had to convince his team to learn the words to the country's new national anthem, previously a song of black protest.

And yet after meeting him in the dressing room before the final and that presentation on the pitch at Ellis Park, Pienaar described him as the "symbol of everything that is good about humanity."

Nelson Mandela with Francois Pienaar

The image of Mandela handing the Rugby World Cup to Pienaar has become part of South African history

As for Mandela, he said he was so nervous before that final against the All Blacks that he nearly fainted.

Looking back, Mandela's achievement was not only persuading a predominantly white sport to warm to him as leader but to convince the black community to get behind a team which had only one black player - Chester Williams.

But while the Rugby World Cup had a powerful political resonance, it was the football world cup which perhaps provided Mandela's greatest sporting legacy.

Having failed to win the bidding contest for the 2006 World Cup - South Africa memorably lost by one vote - he launched himself on another round of campaigning to ensure the 2010 competition did not slip away.

It is still difficult to understand how some members of Fifa's executive committee could take calls in their rooms on the eve of the 2006 vote from a politician of Mandela's stature and still turn South Africa down.

But his and the country's perseverance paid off and the Fifa president Sepp Blatter delivered on his promise to take football's biggest event to Africa for the first time.

Nelson Mandela: Key dates

  • 1918 Born in the Eastern Cape
  • 1943 Joins African National Congress
  • 1956 Charged with high treason but charges dropped
  • 1962 Arrested, convicted of sabotage, sentenced to five years in prison
  • 1964 Charged again, sentenced to life
  • 1990 Freed from prison
  • 1993 Wins Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1994 Elected first black president
  • 1999 Steps down as leader
  • 2004 Retires from public life

The tournament itself was more memorable for its historical significance than its footballing pedigree. By simply staging an event of such complexity and scale South Africa achieved something remarkable.

But it was more than an organisational triumph. During that tournament I interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town. He told me: "We have all talked about the rainbow nation. But we are the caterpillar that has become the beautiful butterfly. If you had told me we would be experiencing what we are experiencing I would have asked: 'Who is your psychiatrist?"

And that was the magic of South Africa 2010. The sense of the whole world looking at this modern nation - confident and assured on the international stage.

Danny Jordaan, the former head of the World Cup organizing committee, worked closely with Mandela during the two bidding campaigns. He described him on Friday as the "difference maker".

"Any country can put together a programme of stadiums and airports and roads but we had Nelson Mandela. Other countries used to complain that it wasn't equal."

It was cruel that come the World Cup Mandela was already too ill to enjoy it. His eventual appearance, frail and freezing, on the back of a buggy on the night of the World Cup final at Soccer City in Johannesburg, in July 2010, was still one of the most moving moments I have been lucky to witness.

Nelson Mandela, speaking in 1997: "It would be arrogance for me to say - this is how I want to be remembered"

Jordaan said: "We thought he wasn't going to be able to come. He was so sick at the time. Then at the last minute we got the call that he was coming.

"We told him just go out on the car, wave to the people and then go back to your bed.

"Looking at it now, it was his last big public appearance - the last time the cameras were around him - and it was so appropriate that it was at a World Cup final he had worked so hard to bring to the country."

As all eyes now turn to Brazil, another nation with problems using the World Cup to try and redefine its image on the global stage, Mandela's view of sport has never seemed more fitting:

"Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers."