For one month this summer South Africa will be the focal point of the sporting world. The biggest names in football will descend on the country as they compete for the ultimate prize, surrounded by glitz and glamour.
Since being granted independence 100 years ago, the country has had a turbulent past with apartheid, violence and poverty hitting the headlines but hosting the World Cup represents a new chapter in the history of the nation: made possible by one determined man.
Nelson Mandela is not only the world’s most famous prisoner but its most respected statesman, having led the fight against apartheid, which dominated the lives of all those who lived in South Africa.
Mandela was born in 1918 in a small village in the eastern cape of South Africa to the Madiba clan of the Xhosa speaking Thembu people. Born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga, he was the son of the counsellor to the Thembu royal family. When Mandela was nine his father died of tuberculosis, and he spent his late childhood in the care of the King of South Africa. It was at this change in his life that a teacher at his English school first gave him the name Nelson. He was noted for being an intelligent youngster and went on to study law at university, where he joined The African National Congress.
The ANC, who remain in power today, were an anti-apartheid movement that organised several political protests against the regime. These were nonviolent until several ANC members were shot dead by police. Mandela felt that this caused further damage to relations between the party and the people of South Africa and so the armed section of the ANC was formed, with Mandela as its leader.
He was then arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, where he would spend the next 27 years. In 1990 the South African government, under the leadership of AF de Klerk, released Mandela and the rest of the ANC members following political pressure at home and abroad.
Mandela was seen as the iconic figure to take the country forward and in 1994 became its first black president. He won the Nobel peace prize for his part in the abolishment of apartheid and, as a leader, vowed to make South Africa a promising country again.
Since stepping down as president he has become the country’s highest ambassador and a chief campaigner for AIDS awareness after losing his son to the disease. Mandela also played a vital role in the peace processes in the Congo and Burundi as well as many other African nations.
South Africa, 20 years on from Mandela’s release, has shown little sign of resolution. Issues regarding racism and apartheid may be improving but there is anger at the lack of basic services such as clean water, electricity and proper housing in some of the poorest areas of the country. Over one million families are living in shacks with single toilets being shared between dozens of families. Time is running out for some South Africans and frustrations are growing. They may be proud that the World Cup is coming to their country, but many would prefer the money spent on new stadiums to have helped upgrade their living conditions.
“Madiba”, as Mandela is affectionately known, has always encouraged the South African people to move on from past atrocities in order to move forward and build a peaceful nation. With the gap between the rich and the poor continuing to increase and unemployment at an all time high, poverty is getting worse. There are real concerns that tourists visiting South Africa for the World Cup will come under threat of violence and crime.
The nation was still under British rule until 1934 when it was released by the commonwealth to become a country run by its own people. It is no coincidence that this year’s competition is being held 100 years after the union of South Africa was formed. The event is being used as a timely celebration.
In the latter stages of this year’s competition Nelson Mandela will turn 92. For him it will hopefully be a showpiece event that will see the culmination of his life’s work. It was, after all, his leadership and role in the fall of apartheid that has enabled sanctions against South Africa to be dropped. This has paved the way for great sporting events to take place in the country: the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the African Cup of Nations in 1996. Each sporting event took place without a hitch and as such the idea of hosting the football World Cup became a possibility. Had it not been for Mandela’s vision for the coun- try, this would never have happened.
FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, feels it is Mandela’s persistence that has helped South Africa achieve the feat of becoming the first African nation to host the tournament. He told Mandela: “You are the true architect of this FIFA World Cup; your presence and commitment made it happen. Now the first African FIFA World Cup is a reality.”
Looking back on Mandela’s life perhaps the World Cup will be seen as one of his greatest legacies. Even if he didn’t design any of the stadiums to be used in the tournament, it is hard to argue that he is a spiritual architect not only for the World Cup but for peace throughout the world.
Words by Edmund Brown
Photography by Anke Van Wyk, Gail Benson and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality