“If you say it’s one of the biggest moments in sport, I can’t think of anything that would be bigger, in terms of bringing people together.”
Since the remarkable, iconic moment in 1995 when Francois Pienaar shook Nelson Mandela’s hand while holding the Rugby World Cup in the other, he has recounted the moment a countless number of times.
But speaking to him at Glasgow’s Hilton Hotel as he prepares to be the guest of honour for Street Soccer Scotland’s annual fundraising dinner, it’s immediately apparent that he never tires of spinning the yarn.
I wish I had hugged him when he handed me the trophy. I wish I had hugged him
And why should he? It’s an iconic image that defined his life as well as South Africa as a nation and the progress made from the shameful days of apartheid.
It also defined the power of sport to unite, to offer a chance for people to be a part of something and to help them grow as people.
So it was only fitting that he would appear at the Street Soccer Scotland shindig. The social enterprise may use a different-shaped ball but the aims remain the same – using sport to help people improve their lot in life. The David Duke-run outfit also know a thing or two about World Cups, responsible as they are for the Scottish team at the Homeless World Cup.
Street Soccer Scotland’s message is one of hope – and that’s what Pienaar, clad in a specially made Rainbow Nation tartan kilt, still believes was the overriding feeling that his side’s success at Ellis Park in Johannesburg brought to a divided South Africa 24 years ago.
“I think it symbolised hope because there was hope that this nation might do something extraordinary,” he says. “On the streets, people were hugging one another. They were sitting down and having a beer. They looked at each other differently.
“That would never even have been on the radar if Mr Mandela didn’t wear the Springboks jersey.
“And still, almost 25 years later, I’m still being told by people where they were, how they felt. So it was hope. That match, what happened on that stage, the jersey. It gave people hope.”
Of course, he was just one half of the iconic image that drummed up that hope. The events of 1995 led to a life-long friendship between Pienaar and Mandela, who died in 2013.
When the former South Africa skipper speaks of his country’s first black president, the emotion he felt in seeing Mandela in the Springboks dressing room wearing a team jersey, or at seeing the Robben Island cell where Mandela was locked up – it’s still tangible.
Pienaar talks of the warmth he felt in Mandela’s company – but admits, incredibly, that even that famous image is still slightly tinged with regret.
“I wish I had hugged him when he handed me the trophy. I wish I had hugged him,” says Pienaar, candidly.
“He’s so magnanimous. He’s so in touch with stuff. But he’s natural. There’s no façade. There’s not: “I have to act like this …” He’s just him.
“He has this aura that is special. Time almost stops. There is no next meeting to rush off to. You feel that you are the most important person now in his conversation.
“And he laughed a lot, he did. Given his 27 years in jail, that’s remarkable.”
Pienaar, now 52 and long-since retired from his rugby union playing days, is still confronted with the ramifications of that Rugby World Cup success, especially now with the 2019 tournament currently ongoing in Japan.
The tale of South Africa’s 1995 success has even made it to the big screen with 2009’s Clint Eastwood-helmed Invictus starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon taking on the role of Pienaar.
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But it is the day-to-day interactions where Pienaar personally sees the differences in South Africa, especially coming from a point where black fans would root against the Springboks prior to the tournament.
“When I travel today in South Africa it is incredible. If I get on a plane to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg people – and especially black people – say, “Good morning my captain”. My heart just goes ‘wow’,” he says.
“It is now almost 25 years later, and we are still having those discussions, where people reflect on what that event made them feel and think. I’ve said before, I’m just glad that we didn’t know at the time the enormity of that tournament and the affect it would have on the nation. It would have been too much for us.”
But while South Africa as a nation has made gigantic leaps forward in the last couple of decades, Pienaar is under no illusions that there is still a long way to go.
He does his bit – using his Make a Difference Leadership Foundation (MAD) to offer children from disadvantaged backgrounds an education that they may otherwise miss out on in a bid to create leadership to help those communities to prosper.
But, as he talks to The Big Issue, former president Jacob Zuma is facing ongoing corruption charges and Pienaar is under no illusions that the case represents
“No, currently, we have a lot of work to do,” he says, with the smile he otherwise wears throughout the interview momentarily lost. “Under the leadership of Zuma, our country went backwards in steps.
“Corruption became our culture and a lot of stuff you read now is just incredible. And it’s the poor and the vulnerable who suffer.”
But Pienaar remains supportive of those in poverty in South Africa – as 35.1 million people are according to Statistics South Africa – and he does it in a way that is familiar to The Big Issue.
He speaks in glowing terms of our sister street paper Big Issue South Africa and he even graced the cover of the magazine back in 2012.
“I buy The Big Issue every time it comes out,” says Pienaar. “The lady that I buy it from, it is so important for her. It’s job creation but also for storytelling, too, about The Big Issue’s people.
“It works differently in South Africa because vendors come up to cars to sell the magazine. And, of course, you have your regular seller because if you miss that spot then you get a frown!”
After his whistle-stop tour of Glasgow, the next destination for Pienaar is Japan to watch the World Cup knockout stages – once Typhoon Habigis has had its way with the tournament anyway.
And, in bad news for Scottish fans, he hopes that it will be Japan joining him in the latter stages of the tournament. The weather has threatened to end Scotland’s chances in their win-or-bust Pool A clash with the hosts.
“I’m sure you all will not find it offensive if I say I would really like Japan to be in the knock-out stages because in their country I experienced what sport can do in your country,” says Pienaar. “With people, the atmosphere, the pride, it would just be insane if they were to qualify for the knock-out stages.”
But will Japan, who famously upset the Springboks in Brighton four years ago, be able to stop South Africa’s class of 2019 from lifting the Web Ellis Cup?
“A year ago I would have been saying I don’t see us doing well,” says Pienaar. “And then Rassie [Erasmus] has got them to click, they have some nice momentum and a couple of things are working for them. But momentum is a wonderful thing.”
After 1995, if anyone knows the power of momentum, it’s definitely Francois Pienaar.