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The 16th Man

Much has been written about Nelson Mandela in recent days, and some of it has been about his association with sport – both personally and politically. Of course, there was much more to Mandela than sport – but his use of it as a source of unity, particularly at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, is legendary.

One of the undergraduate courses I teach is heritage tourism, and one of the units in the course is about the politics of heritage. During this unit, I discuss the idea of dissonance in heritage, in that heritage in its many forms is frequently divisive.  In other words, one person’s symbol or site of heritage pride is another’s symbol of hate or anguish.  Rarely are these divergent views reconciled.  In case after case, students are shown that, perhaps, the one inherent quality heritage demonstrates is division.

However, at the end of the unit, I show the students The 16th Man documentary from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 documentary series. In it, the students see how Mandela took the Springbok – one of the central symbols of apartheid – and made it into a symbol of unity. Of course, this challenges the students to question whether heritage always erects barriers or can actually help to build bridges, so to speak.


  1. Marizanne Grundlingh says:

    Much has been said and written about Mandela’s role in ‘uniting’ all South Africans, by his gesture of wearing the no. 6 Springbok jersey at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. As you state, the dissonant quality of heritage, and particularly sport heritage (in this case the Springbok emblem and the meaning and ideology associated with it) is somewhat challenged by Mandela’s actions at the time. But I am a bit hesitant to buy into a romanticised notion of ‘nation building’ that takes place for 90 minutes on a rugby field, after a turmoil political period. Sport as a true form of reconciliation, that permeates all spheres of society needs to play out in the everydag practices, on school, club and university level. The professional sports platform and events like the Rugby World Cup (RWC) can portray an image of unity, but in reality once the event is over people go back to their everyday lives, where our society is still very much stratified.

    If heritage takes form during times of instability and crisis (Lowenthal, 1998) then perhaps it is not surprising that the South African public and Afrikaner rugby supporters in particular found solice in the Springbok emblem, during a time where they had lost political power. What made Mandela’s contribution to the 1995 RWC significant, was the fact that All South Africans, irrespective of race could support one team, under one emblem and with South Africa winning the RWC, the euphoria swept across the country. But there is more to it. The Springbok emblem as a form of sports heritage does not only speak to that particular day at Ellis Park when we won the RWC, but has a rich history associated with it, both in political and economic terms. The political significance is perhaps associated with it being a symbol of Afrikaner sport and ideology prior to the democratic elected government, but what intrigues me is the commercial and economic brand it has become post 1994. The Springbok emblem, as a a symbol of sports heritage has become a powerful brand in itself (and fueled with its association with Mandela in 1995) has become a marketing tool for the South African Rugby Union in promoting a winning team, the Springboks, but also in luring tourists to the new Springbok Experience museum in Cape Town. So for me the dissonant aspect of sports heritage, and in this case the Springbok emblem, does not only apply to its narrow understanding as a symbol of white oppression, but how it has become a highly effective commercialised marketing tool, used to celebrate South African identity.

    Another aspect to consider about Mandela’s contribution to the RWC is the memories, nostalgia and recollections people have of that day when South Africa win the RWC in 1995. Over the past weekend, the HSBC rugby sevens world tournament was held in Port Elizabeth. South Africa played against New Zealand in the final and won. The media played this event up, as a fitting way to commemorate Mandela and rehash the memories of the RWC in 1995 where the Springboks were the victors over New Zealand. The post – match narrative was all about Mandela’s legacy and how history has repeated itself with the 7’s team winning the title. This event speaks to collective memory and how sport informs a national dialogue of the past, sports heritage , nostalgia and how the legacy of Mandela and his involvement in sport intersect. All food for thought as we mourn Madiba’s passing this week.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, and for the broader contextualization of the transformation of the logo’s meaning – and, perhaps, that there were (are) significantly more issues at play. I, too, critique the romanticism of of many (sport) heritages and of the use of nostalgia – indeed, they tend to gloss over numerous contemporary issues. My point, of course, in illustrating how the logo was used – and that, indeed, it seems that its meaning and the team/sport it represents changed – suggests that heritage may be one of many tools in reconciliation. However, I take your point that there is more – much more – than meets the eye, and that we should take a more critical look at these oft’ repeated narratives.

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