Born at a time when the country was going through its darkest years of segregation, South Africa star Steven Pienaar knows the feeling that comes with freedom as only someone denied it can. Raised in Johannesburg in a township demarcated to “coloureds”, or mixed race, at a time when the legislated racism of apartheid grouped people based on their skin pigmentation, Pienaar believes a lot has changed since then. When South Africa abandoned the system in 1994, he was 12 – just a kid growing up in the dusty streets of Westbury. Although he might have been young, he was mature enough to comprehend what had been achieved in his native land.
Today, the Tottenham Hotspur midfield maestro believes the world is a better place because of the sacrifices made by the likes of Nelson Mandela, who walked out of prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration in protest of the regime, and others who paid the highest prize with their lives and limbs. But Pienaar knows that there is still a long way to go before the fight against discrimination can be won, and he says it is from Madiba, as the ageing South African statesman is affectionately known, that he draws inspiration. In the icon, he sees someone who always put the needs of his people ahead of his own, and like many South Africans, his voice drips with praise when he speaks about the man who become an international symbol of freedom.
Another symbol of South Africa - the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ - was a vital moment for the African people and the fight against discrimination according to Pienaar. Football has the power to unite, and he has become the biggest star in his country in the post Lucas Radebe and Benni McCarthy era. Not only has he assumed that responsibility by captaining South Africa’s senior national team, Bafana Bafana, but Pienaar has also taken it upon himself to play a role in improving the lives of African people. He has seen how sport can transform a society as he still remembers how Neil Tovey, a white player, was idolised in South African townships after leading South Africa to the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations triumph – just two years after the country gained it’s democracy.
For many decades, South Africa gained international notoriety for legislating racism and segregation. The country was ultimately suspended and banned by FIFA, but in the last 15 years the country has since become an example of how the people who often fought on opposite camps can now live together in what Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela dubbed a “Rainbow Nation”. As such, Steven Pienaar's story is one of how football can help that process.
FIFA.com: Looking back now, what do you think about South Africa’s history of organised discrimination?
Pienaar: Growing up in South Africa, a country that for many years suffered under racial discrimination, I kept myself busy with football and tried not to think about apartheid around me. It was a tough time in South Africa and many innocent people suffered under apartheid in my home country, but we have to forget about the past and build on our future.
How important was Madiba to this struggle to move forward instead of looking back?
Nelson Mandela is our ‘Father of the Nation,’ and he played a major role in trying to put an end to discrimination in South Africa and the world. Even when he was in jail, he never gave up fighting for freedom or for our rights. He showed us that we all have to fight for a better life, for freedom and for an end to discrimination in the world.
How important of a step was the FIFA World Cup last year, to have the world visiting and watching the spectacle hosted on African soil?
Many people, especially in Europe, thought that we couldn’t manage a World Cup in our country. At the end, we all proved them wrong. The world celebrated a fantastic World Cup on the African continent, with crazy supporters and the unforgettable sounds of the Vuvuzelas. The future will show us if we can keep up the spirit from the World Cup, but I am convinced that we can do it. I think a World Cup in my country was a fantastic opportunity for us and the African people to make a strong statement on ending discrimination.
How do you think football and sport in general fit into that fight?
Sport is the best thing to unite people. Nelson Mandela taught us how sports can change people’s minds and bring them together as a happy family. I remember the Rugby World Cup in our country when he brought our nation together. Sports can change people’s minds and prejudices not only in South Africa but around the whole world.