WITNESSED HISTORY: Former Wallaby and Queensland halfback Peter Slattery. Lisa Williams
WITNESSED HISTORY: Former Wallaby and Queensland halfback Peter Slattery. Lisa Williams

Mandela showed power of sport

FORMER rugby union international Peter Slattery believes anyone who doubts the value of sport in society need only look at the late Nelson Mandela.

The former Wallabies and Queensland halfback visited South Africa several times during the early 1990s, one of the most important periods in the nation's history.

Over three years and several rugby tours, Slattery progressively felt the changing mood of the country and became acutely aware he was witnessing a special time in history.

"We were there for rugby, but we knew this was bigger than anything we could experience," he said.

"We could feel there was this massive social change."

Slattery was a regular squad member on rugby tours to South Africa in 1992 - soon after the fall of apartheid - until the famous World Cup in 1995 - a sporting event regarded largely as securing the unification of black and white South Africans.

He recalls being a part of the first Reds tour after the lifting of apartheid and the end of sporting and trade sanctions.

"We were pretty much welcomed. Sport was massively important to the white population of South Africa," he said.

"While we weren't hugged as such, there was a collective emotional hug, as if they were saying, 'We're back in this'."

Squad members made sure they "soaked up" their experiences at the time - from playing to sell-out crowds in 50,000-seat stadiums to kids coaching clinics for children in shanty towns.

The Australian sides marvelled at the support they received from black rugby fans, who would back any team other than the local white sides.

"It was confronting and exciting at the same time," Slattery said.

The mood started to shift with Mandela's release from 27 years in prison and his climb to the most senior political role in the nation.

"Just wandering through the crowds, you could feel the positiveness in the white population, that Nelson Mandela was going to be South Africa's first black president."

Slattery recalls sitting in his motel room in Durban, glued to the TV watching the inauguration in 1994 of Mr Mandela as president.

Then, in a move displaying Mr Mandela's political nous, he embraced rugby union - traditionally a white man's sport.

"His use of rugby to connect with the white population was tremendous. It really spoke to the quality of the man," Slattery said.

"To see Mandela wearing that Springbok jersey, it was a massive statement.

"We didn't really imagine how much he could use rugby to unite a country."

In the end, the strategy proved genius as South Africa, with the entire nation on board, won the 1995 World Cup and took major steps toward unity.

"There was only one country that was going to win that World Cup, and that was that country," Slattery said.

"He was an amazing part of humanity.

"If we all take something positive from his approach to life, the world's going to be a better place."