In 1994, South Africa shed the shackles of apartheid to enter into a democracy under the leadership of struggle icon Nelson Mandela. But this did not mean that a country – once systematically divided along racial lines – was automatically set on a path of unity.

During the apartheid years, sport was used as a major tool for resistance against the system of racial segregation with South Africa being banned from competing on the international stage in most sporting codes – including cricket, rugby and football. These sanctions served the purpose of both highlighting the unjust system in the country at the time and of applying pressure on the National Party to end apartheid.

As the first democratic president of South Africa, Mandela sought to work toward the goal of bringing together a once divided people and to lead South Africa on a path to success. In what for many seemed an insurmountable task, the Nobel Peace Prize winner did not just look to the corridors of government for a solution but also to the playing field – a possible indication as to why South Africa has hosted numerous sporting events since.

The first of many major sporting events hosted in the country, South Africa hosted the IRB Rugby World Cup in 1995 – a tournament which saw South Africa lift the trophy at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg.

Top South African cricket administrator, Dr Ali Bacher, is himself no stranger to the importance of sport in South Africa’s history, having captained the South African cricket team in 1970 against Australia just before SA Cricket was kicked out of international participation. He also pushed for the breakdown of racial divisions in the sport and shared a poignant moment with Mandela on the issue of sport and national unity.

Bacher speaks about the mood leading up to the Rugby World Cup. This event saw calls for the removal of South Africa’s sporting emblem - the Springbok - due to its link with the predominantly white dominated sports of the past. Mandela saw this argument as a chance to send a strong symbol to the white and Afrikaans population, many of whom feared reprisals from the apartheid years, by lending his support to their cause.

“To give an indication of his (Mandela’s) wisdom and insight, in 1995 - halfway through the Rugby World Cup - he came out publicly to support players wearing the Springbok emblem which, to many, represented a sporting code that only whites could play for in the apartheid era. A television crew came to me to ask about the response from South African cricket and I said that we wanted a neutral emblem that will satisfy both white and black. Soon after, Mandela invited me to lunch and he took me out onto the patio with two of my board members. He started to explain that he understood that amongst Afrikaans people, rugby and the [Springbok] emblem were very important. He told me he wore the rugby jersey and the emblem and went out onto the field (on the day of the Rugby World Cup final) because he wanted to thank them for their support for him as South Africa’s first ever black president,” reminisces Bacher.

He is referring to the now famous post-match celebration which saw Nelson Mandela come out onto the field wearing a South African rugby jersey with captain Francois Pienaar’s number on the back.

“In South Africa, the majority of the black population supported soccer while the majority of whites supported rugby. Mandela rallied the black people to support rugby and united a country. The man that made it all happen was our revered icon, Nelson Mandela,” continues Bacher, who also reflects on the role reversal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.

“I see a difference now in 2010. At the grounds, thousands of whites have been dressed in Bafana Bafana clothing going out to support the national team - where previously it would be mainly black people. I see black families and white families talking about the national team, taking pictures with each other. These are small things for people from overseas but from a South African point of view this is very significant. We have arrived at a state of true unification in this country,” said Bacher.

Another sporting icon who has witnessed firsthand the power of sport in South Africa’s psyche is former Bafana Bafana football player, Mark Fish, who was part of the team that lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy in 1996 at the very site where Soccer City stadium now stands.

In another successful sporting tournament hosted by South Africa, the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations was more than just a football tournament as Nelson Mandela once again came out in the captain’s jersey to handover the trophy to the victorious team.

“In 1996 we represented a nation and saw what we are seeing now (in 2010). White people came to [the then] FNB stadium to support football and the nation. It was brilliant. Before, these people would know the rugby team but after 1996 - with Mandela supporting the team - they knew who we were.

It was the highlight of my football career – not winning the trophy, but seeing how people came together and united behind Bafana Bafana. That’s why I think we ended up winning the tournament. The way the country got behind us was absolutely phenomenal,” said Fish, who believes the World Cup has also had a dramatic effect on the nation.

“We have seen a nation get behind Bafana, people are talking about football. The challenge for us as a nation and a footballing nation is to keep the standard that we have now reached. We can build on this if we continue to work together as a nation”.