When Nelson Mandela Told Me, ‘Sport Has Power to Change the World’

(The author, Amrit Mathur, was the manager of the Indian cricket team that toured South Africa for the first time in 1992 and also the 2003 World Cup in South Africa)

Before the Indian team’s departure for South Africa in 1992, BCCI President Madhavrao Scindia gave me only one instruction – the first thing that the team should do is call on Nelson Mandela.

This directive put the 1992-93 Indian team’s tour to South Africa in perspective. From a cricket standpoint this was a journey into the unknown, a manned mission to what was uncharted and unfamiliar territory. Practically nothing was known about cricket there – no intelligence about ground, conditions, pitches and players.

It was, however, apparent that other forces apart from cricket were at play and there was a political context to the trip. The Indian team’s visit was to make a significant policy statement that went beyond cricket. Those days, South Africa was out of bounds for Indians, our passports were stamped ‘not valid for South Africa and Israel’ and the Indian government did not recognise the De Klerk regime because of its apartheid policies. As a result there was no official presence of India there – no embassy and no diplomatic personnel.

 

But the early 1990’s was a period of profound change – the South African cricket board had already ‘united’ by bringing together different ethnic groups. It was headed by African National Congress (ANC) leader Krish McKerdhuj and driven by Ali Bacher, whose vision was to use cricket as an instrument of reconciliation, inclusion and peace. That is why India was the first team invited to play, ending years of international sporting isolation.

On reaching South Africa, after a rousing reception in Durban that involved a ride from the airport to hotel in open cars and a civic reception, I promptly put my request to Ali about meeting Mandela.

An appointment was soon granted and a visibly excited team set out to meet the great man one afternoon in Johannesburg. Accompanying us were key officials of South African cricket and the ANC – Krish, Ali and Steve Tshwete, who later became Minister of Sport. Also playing a key role in the background was Anand Sharma, who had been working for long to bring political change.

Before the meeting, there were two matters of concern.

When the team discussed the visit, there was debate about an appropriate gift/memento to be presented to the great man. 

Would it be proper to give a BCCI tie, team shirt, some traditional Indian handicraft, or a silk scarf? After much debate a ‘safe’ option was chosen: a cricket bat signed by the team.

My treasured possession is a photograph with Nelson Mandela, signed: To Emrit, Mandela.
My treasured possession is a photograph with Nelson Mandela, signed: To Emrit, Mandela. (Photo: Amrit Mathur)

And what was the other matter that concerned me, the manager? On occasions such as this, it is the manager’s responsibility to speak, say a few words on behalf of the BCCI and the team. At any other time this is routine, you utter the usual polite words and the matter is done. But this was no ordinary occasion, the Indian team was meeting the greatest living person on earth, an iconic world leader, and it was my responsibility to speak and say the right things.

 

I worked hard on my ‘speech’ (making sure it included Mahatma Gandhi, peace and close ties between India and South Africa), memorised it by heart, and then rehearsed it many times.

The team was led into Mandela’s office after passing through several layers of security , with metal doors that opened and shut with the press of buttons, iron grills and trained (and armed) personnel frisking all members .

This done, we stood around in a hall waiting for him to arrive. A short while later, Mandela walked in, serene and gracious, a half smile on his face, radiating warmth and goodness, exuding charm and humility. We looked at him speechless with awe, thrilled at the opportunity of meeting him, blessed to be in his presence.

Handshakes done, and introductions made, it was time for business and my turn to say my bit. As everyone stood around in a semi-circle, taking a deep breath and saying a silent prayer, I recited my practised piece, thankfully without stuttering or stammering.

Once it ended there was an awkward silence, we waited to hear Mandela say a few words but there was a longish pause as he, apparently, was waiting for something. A little later an aide rushed in with a piece of paper containing points for him to make in his speech. He looked at the paper quickly then spoke eloquently, his words simple, encouraging and deeply inspiring.

But the irony of the occasion did not escape me. I recited my speech, unassisted by notes or a written text, but Mr Mandela spoke from prepared notes!

He accepted the signed bat, said he appreciated the thoughtful gesture of the team. Later, Krish McKerdhuj told me the bat was displayed prominently on the mantelpiece in his office.

 

Mr Mandela also came to the Wanderers, Johannesburg, during the Test and watched the match with interest. I sat with him, answering questions he asked about the players and the game. For me it was a massive privilege to be in his company.

Mandela said sport has the power to change the world, and perhaps, in a tiny way, the Indian team made a difference in South Africa in 1992-1993. But he changed the world by living the way he did, supporting humanity and peace.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.