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DILEEP PREMACHANDRAN
TWELFTH MAN

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India

Mandela won over millions of doubters

Nelson Mandela

he cabbie who drove me around Johannesburg on my first visit there, in 2006, was named Nelson. His father, an African National Congress stalwart in the 1950s, had named him after his comrade. When Nelson was four, his father was arrested for protesting against the new apartheid laws. He spent more than three years in solitary confinement. When he came out, he was, according to Nelson, "a shell of a man". He died the day the Soweto Uprising began – June 16, 1976.

After he had taken me to the Apartheid Museum – there are few starker reminders of the atrocities committed by the regimes of Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and PW Botha – I asked Nelson how he could be at peace, how he could forgive the monsters who had done that to his father. In response, he stopped the car and retrieved something from the boot. It was a photograph, yellow with age, of a group of men gathered in a meeting. One of them sat slightly elevated from the rest, on a large granite rock, and had a fedora on his head. "That was my father," said Nelson, his chest swollen with pride.

After a pause, he looked into the far distance, in the direction of the gold mines around which the city had been built. "I forgive them because Madiba forgave them," he said. "If Madiba could, I'm sure my father would have too." It was an answer that left me speechless.

But that, in a nutshell, was Nelson Mandela's greatness. He managed to convince people – the vast majority, at any rate – who had been subjected to the most hideous treatment for decades that they should forgive their tormentors, that reconciliation rather than revenge should mark the way forward. For us in India, now a land of political pygmies and charlatans, it is hard to fathom that such a man even existed.

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As much as political initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a huge factor on the road to forgiveness was Mandela’s championing of the Springboks. For decades, the rugby team had been a source of fierce Afrikaner pride.

side from a few right-wing nut jobs, you wouldn't come across any South Africans who had a bad word to say about him. "Madiba was an inspiration to the Proteas in the same way that he was to other South African teams" said Graeme Smith, who has captained the Test side for more than a decade. "To us, he represented so many of the qualities which we as players have looked to adopt in playing for South Africa.

"As the captain I was very privileged to spend some time with him and I vividly recall telephone calls I received from him wishing us luck before a big match or event. He always gave simple but wise advice and this had a big impact on me as leader of the team. His words will stay with me forever as they were not only relevant to cricket, but also to life."

I have seen Makhaya Ntini, another child of the Eastern Cape – Mandela's funeral will be held in Qunu, the village where he was born –struggle to hold back tears as he tried to explain what Madiba meant to so many. Ntini grew up herding cattle in Mdingi. But for the dismantling of apartheid, that would probably have been as much as he would have seen of the world. Instead, he ended up with 390 Test wickets and his name on the Honours Board at Lord's.

As much as political initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a huge factor on the road to forgiveness was Mandela's championing of the Springboks. For decades, the rugby team had been a source of fierce Afrikaner pride. By supporting the team and watching the 1995 World Cup final in the famous green shirt, once seen as a symbol of white privilege, Mandela won over millions of doubters.

"Nelson Mandela was the most extraordinary and incredible human being, not only because he united his country when such a task seemed impossible but also because, through his unique humanity, he inspired hundreds of millions of people across the globe," said Francois Pienaar, who captained that Springbok side to glory. "It was my great fortune and privilege to receive the Webb Ellis Cup from Madiba at the conclusion of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, creating what has become an iconic image of national success, unity and reconciliation that resonates with all South Africans."

If you still remain sceptical about sport's power to change things for the better, just look at that photograph.

 
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