When Nelson Mandela, recently released from 27 years in jail, wanted to develop a means to bring his country to a peaceful transition to power, he realised he needed to build bridges with the ruling ethnic group. He developed a smart but highly controversial strategy called “nation-building through sport”: it was to be a major tool for reconciliation between sports-mad black and white South Africans.
In that quest, international correspondent and film-maker Paul Martin became one of his closest confidantes. Defying the white sports establishment, Martin had been part of South Africa’s anti-apartheid sports movement. But in the late 1970s and the 1980s while in exile in Britain, Martin had kept contacts with the leadership of the white South African sporting establishment too.
In a seminal article for the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), and in special programmes on national television in Britain, where he gone into exile, Martin had argued that the sports boycott weapon should be used with the “efficacy of a rapier, not the crudity of a sledge-hammer”.
Over the four years leading to Mandela becoming the country’s official leader, Martin and Mandela were able to discuss a range of tactics. That dialogue started on a plane-flight days after Mandela’s release, but continued elsewhere, for example, in Mandela’s house in a smart Johannesburg suburb, at the Presidential residence in Pretoria, and at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Martin was able to generate important stories about the sport-reconciliation strategy in the international media, including in British newspapers, on the BBC and on international sports magazine television programmes.
When South Africa’s national cricket team was to make its first tour to England, Martin was the only media specialist invited to meet Mandela and the team – at his official home in Pretoria – and to do an exclusive interview with him there.
After South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, with Mandela donning the green-and-gold Springbok jersey – until then despised by most black people as a symbol of white racism – Martin had the only exclusive interview with the great leader (at his Johannesburg home, two days later).
As the filmed interview ended, Mandela threw Martin an imaginary rugby ball. “You see, Paul,” he said. “Nation-building. It worked!”