Mandela: Sportsman at heart

Published: Wednesday | December 11, 2013 Comments 0
People draped in flags bearing the image of Nelson Mandela arrive for the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday. - AP
People draped in flags bearing the image of Nelson Mandela arrive for the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday. - AP

 Tony Becca, Contributing Editor

Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest men who ever walked the face of the earth. As a freedom fighter, he was bigger than the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Mandela, undoubtedly, is the greatest man I have ever seen, or met.

After spending 27 years in solitary confinement on Robben Island in his native South Africa, Mandela was released in 1991, and to worldwide acclaim, became South Africa's first black president two years later.

Mandela, however, was more than a freedom fighter and more than a president. He was a sportsman, a man who loved sports, a man who believed in the ability of sports and great sportsmen and sportswomen to unite people, and a man who believed in the greatness of Sir Garry Sobers and West Indies cricket.

I met Mandela on June 30, 1991, in Soweto, one year after he was released from Robben Island and two years before he became president, at an unofficial and hastily-arranged meeting at his home early one morning.

A group of us, cricketers and cricket writers, were guests of the cricket fraternity in South Africa at a banquet to mark the end of Apartheid, to signal the end of the South African Cricket Union (SACU) and the South African Cricket Board (SACB) and the launch of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA), at which Sobers was the guest speaker.

The other West Indians in the party were Austin Sealy, president of the Barbados Olympic Association, Tony Cozier and myself.

We wanted to meet Mandela, we asked Ali Bacher about it and we were told that that was not on the itinerary.


One day we met Steve Tshwete, who had spent some time on Robben Island with Mandela and who was the sports coordinator of the ANC at the time and Minister of Sports in the Mandela government. We asked him about a possible meeting with Mandela and he said he was sorry but that was not possible.

The only way it was possible, according to Tshwete, was if Sobers wanted to see Mandela.

Sobers was overwhelmed, this was related to Tshwete and within a few hours, a call came from Tshwete saying that it was on.

Mandela, a long-time fan of Sobers, "the greatest cricketer on the planet", had said yes, but it would have to be early the following morning because he had to attend a meeting of the ANC in Durban the next day.

Around six o'clock the following morning, the four of us, plus Sunil Gavaskar, travelled with Tshwete to Mandela's home in Soweto and we were ushered to his living room where we were surrounded by a room-full of gifts and prizes and awards presented to him.

A few minutes later, Mandela arrived, dressed in his house coat, and thus began the greatest 30 minutes of my life.

We were introduced to him one by one, he shook our hands, he took photographs with us one by one and he spent most of the time talking cricket with Sobers, talking about Sobers' greatness and about the effect that Sobers and the West Indies teams of the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s had on him while he was in prison on Robben Island.

After saying that Sobers and the West Indies team were heroes to him and the little black boys in South Africa, and after taking a photograph with Sobers, he put his hand around his waist and said, "I will show this to my grandson."

And then he smiled and said: "I am a great man, too, you know," and then, again with a smile, "you have met me and you are one up on Bradman."

Again he smiled, and said: "He never met me."

Talking about the boycott which kept South Africa out of international sports for a long time, he told us why sport was important in his country and why he supported sports among the people, all the people.

"Our people want to participate and we have to facilitate them. Some may be saying that they cannot understand us as we were the ones who called for a boycott and now we're asking for help to get back in sport. That, however, is life. Apart from the fact that compromise is now necessary, the state of a war, the conditions, always determines strategy.

"Our children want to play, and they want to play with everyone. Sport can speed up the process of reunification, and the future of South Africa is in the hands of the children."

Finally, the great man said: "The children at play are probably our only hope of reunification. It is a chance and we have to take it. We don't know what will happen, but that is what we have been fighting for, so we have to give it a try."

I will never ever forget that visit to Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto, his handshake, his smile and his words of wisdom.

NOTE: World leaders, celebrities and citizens from all walks of life gathered yesterday in South Africa to pay respects during a memorial service for the former president and anti-apartheid icon.


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