On June 24, 1995, South Africa defeats New Zealand in the finals of the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park in Johannesburg while a special guest looks on: Nelson Mandela, who had become the first president of South Africa to be elected in a fully representational democratic election the previous year. Mandela wore the jersey of Francois Penaar, South Africa’s team captain.
At his inauguration on May 10, 1994, Mandela, who had spent 27 years as a political prisoner of the South African government, declared that “the time for the healing of the wounds has come.” Over the course of his five-year presidency (1994-1999), he dedicated himself to building understanding and forgiveness between black and white South Africans. As part of South Africa’s system of apartheid, Afrikaans for apartness, blacks were traditionally excluded from the rugby team and as a result did not support the national team. Mandela’s appearance at the rugby game in spite of the national team’s exclusionary history was an effort to help heal the nation’s wounds over its ugly history of apartheid and move forward with the integration of the national rugby team.
The 1995 World Cup final pitted South Africa’s Springboks against the New Zealand All Blacks. Both teams came into the match undefeated, and were widely thought to be the two best teams in the tournament. The day before the final, most of the New Zealand team got food poisoning, which some observers believed to be a deliberate act of sabotage. South Africa led 9-6 at halftime, but early in the second half the All Blacks tied the score at 9. A drop goal by South Africa’s Joel Stransky broke a 12-12 tie in extra time, giving South Africa the championship. After the game, Mandela presented the trophy to a visibly moved Penaar.
In 2007, Nelson Mandela’s appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was chosen as the greatest moment in World Cup history.