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By Suresh Menon
The expression ‘sport and politics do not mix’ has become a cliché because sport has been misused by dictators to further their own narrow interests. Hitler and the 1936 Olympics, for example, or the junta and the 1978 World Cup soccer in Argentina. The fond hope is that by pretending they do not mix, we can actually keep sport and politics apart.
In apartheid South Africa, the cry among the affected was: “No normal sport in an abnormal society.” Sporting isolation contributed its mite to the dismantling of apartheid.
And then Nelson Mandela ensured that sports and politics mixed well enough to bring a nation together.
The apogee came in 1995, the year South Africa won the rugby world cup. Television images of Mandela wearing a jersey in the national colours are remembered today long after the final scores of the matches are forgotten. Here was sport as symbolism used for good in a cause greater than either sport or party politics. Rugby captain Francois Pienaar spoke of the inspiration that Mandela had provided. The President was reaching out to his countrymen despite his own lukewarm interest in rugby, and his countrymen responded with spirit. This was the truth of the reconciliation. Hearing the White majority audience at the stadium chanting Mandela’s name merely confirmed that the gesture had been both apt and timely.
But before rugby, there was cricket. And the green signal Mandela gave India, first for hosting South Africa’s inaugural post-apartheid tour and then inviting them back for India’s first-ever tour of that country.
That was just over two decades ago, and when we – the players and the media – were invited to meet Mandela at the headquarters of the African National Congress in Johannesburg, our dreams seemed to be seguing into reality quite smoothly.
He was 74, and moved with the practiced ease of a boxer, which he had been. There were no drum rolls, no dramatic announcements. No throat-clearing or shuffling. Suddenly he was among us, and there was electricity in the air. Mandela put everybody at ease. The smile reached his eyes, the handshake was warm; it was like greeting an old friend.
“I recognized you from television,” Mandela told the Indian manager Amrit Mathur, leaving him tongue tied. The Indian team had been garnering enormous media time. This was the ‘Friendship Series’ and you were in daily touch with history; anything anybody did was being done for the first time.
“What a moment!” whispered Sanjay Manjrekar standing nearby as Mandela walked around greeting each of us in turn. The date was 29 October 1992 – I know because Mandela carefully wrote it out after signing a book I had been carrying with me, a biography by his friend and colleague Es’Kia Mphahlele.
Mandela was happy to chat. Did he watch much cricket, someone wanted to know? Mandela recalled watching the Australians and Neil Harvey. “He was my hero,” he said.
Then came a gentle reminder of the dark days, “We watched the match from the barricaded enclosures.” In effect these were cages in which the Black spectators were herded together with none of the conveniences available to the ruling Whites. Later, it struck me when Kapil Dev was marking his run up preparatory to bowling his first delivery in the opening Test that this would be the first time a whole race of people would be watching a Test match in South Africa from behind the bowler’s arm. It was a depressing thought in a country where Test cricket has been played for over a hundred years.
One man had changed all that.