The Independent’s former South Africa bureau chief chronicles the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory that united a divided country.
Carlin (White Angels, 2004, etc.) presents a revealing and entertaining insider’s view of the improbable events leading to South Africa’s upset triumph over New Zealand, which many believe instantly secured a peaceful future for the then-unsettled nation. The Springboks, as South Africa’s team was called, may have secured the World Cup trophy, but the real hero of this stirring tale is recently elected President Nelson Mandela, who adopted the mostly Afrikaner players as his own and somehow got the predominantly black population behind them. Carlin shows that Mandela’s genius for swaying hearts and minds was nothing new. Jailed since 1964 by the country’s apartheid government, the African National Congress leader systematically won over his enemies, from a cruel prison warden to President P.W. Botha. By the time he was released in 1990, Mandela was a celebrated world figure and a hero to many at home. But even after his inauguration in May 1994, South Africa remained on the verge of civil war. The new president was smart enough to realize that his best chance of calming the white minority’s anger and fear was by getting a united South Africa behind the celebrated Springboks, who’d been banned from the first two Rugby World Cups, in 1987 and ’91, as part of an international anti-apartheid boycott. Carlin follows the events leading up to the 1995 World Cup with a knowing eye for both history and the sport of rugby. But most memorable of all is his portrait of Mandela: an inherently simple man (he rises at 4:30 a.m. every day to a breakfast of papaya, kiwi, mango, porridge and coffee) with a knack for the perfect political gesture, and the courage and conviction to pull it off.
A rousing, highly readable piece of history.