Shelley du Plessis's African footprints

Shelley du Plessis
Shelley du Plessis

Total silence presided over South Africa and in many other places around the world, as one and a half billion pairs of eyes followed the arc of the rugby ball as it left Joel Stransky's boot and cart-wheeled towards the goal posts. Thirty exhausted men stood, leaning hands on their knees, waiting, watching, and anticipating.

Fifteen wished that the ball wouldn't find the mark and fifteen hoped that it would. The ball coursed through the air, passing exactly through the middle of the uprights of the goal posts. Instantly, South Africa became the undisputed rugby champions of the world. Instantly, South Africa became a united nation. Sport had become the glue to bind a nation once divided. People wept, threw their arms around one another's necks, and thumped the shoulders and backs of total strangers. All of this camaraderie took place regardless of the person's colour, gender, language preference, age or religion. We were one!

The unifying factors, a man of vision - Nelson Mandela; a man of courage - Francois Pienaar and the Amabokhobokho, a generic term for the Afrikaans term of endearment for our South African national rugby team, the bokke, the Springboks. The team wears a leaping Springbuck on their chest over their hearts and this buck is called a bok in Afrikaans.

Saturday 24th June 1995 will always be a stake in South African history that points to a direct time of unification in a vastly divided nation, a nation that had been filled and fueled by hatred because of a man's skin colour or language preference and what that represented below the surface.

I have had the incredible privilege of living through the birth pains of the young democratic South Africa, having been able to see first hand and experience the emotion and rumbling excitement that was in the belly of the nation before 24th June 1995. We were moving forward so fast in our young democracy. Following years of turmoil came the release of Nelson Mandela, then our first democratic elections where every responsible adult had the opportunity to vote for the first time and having the wonderful joy of every South African enjoying every aspect of public entertainment.

As it became obvious that South Africa would reach the Rugby World Cup final, we began to see subtle changes taking place. It was as though we were silently being conditioned to join hands across divides that had separated us for years, and support our national rugby team. Rugby in South Africa had always been considered an elite, Afrikaans speaking, white man's sport, with strong association to the government of the time. So, to ask the rest of the population to join hands and support a team they hated or, which would not naturally hold their allegiance, was a huge request. The South African anthem changed to Nkozi Sikelele (God Bless Africa); the African working song Shosholoza┬╣ became fashionable; the new South African flag was introduced and hoisted; Madiba (Nelson Mandela) went from place to place, encouraging the nation to support the Amabokhobokho; community was built as the general public talked about a common subject, and we unconsciously took ownership of the 'one team, one country' slogan Madiba was sowing. I began to watch the infant South African stop crawling and begin to stand on the wobbly legs of unification.

Just before the kick-off at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, several other things took place that solidified our unification. A huge South African Airways 747 aircraft thundered low overhead, having been given special permission to defy all air traffic rules because they were supporting our 'boys'. On the belly of the aircraft was written: 'Go Bokke'. The roar from the crowd within the stadium was just explosive. Then, as if nothing could top that, Madiba emerged from the players' tunnel to greet the teams. To our absolute delight, he had done away with protocol and wore a Springbok Jersey with the captain's number on his back. The stadium as one began to chant, "Nelson, Nelson". One man, one team, one country at last!

Now, it would be ignorant of me to ignore the fact that South Africa still has a long way to go before it fulfils its complete unification. However, like the Israelites under Moses, South Africans are able to look back at significant occasions in our historical timeline and say, "at this moment in our history, we saw the hand of God move over our nation". God called the Israelites to build a heap of twelve stones at every important occasion along their journey to the Promised Land. Moses called them Ebenezer's, reminders that, at this point, God was with them. I think that in many ways, South Africans unknowingly have an Ebenezer in our Invictus that we can look back at and say, God was with us.

I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?
Jeremiah 32:27

1 Shosholoza - A Zulu word for go forward - make a way for the next man. This was not originally a song of joy or victory. It would have been sung by workers on way to the mines, a harsh and dark reality of hard labour for low pay. It has since come to represent the banding together of a people, their pride and dignity, and their progression into a new and free world. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.