Garth Wakeford, the South African-born number-eight man of the Montauk Rugby Club, spoke movingly at the club’s holiday dinner in Sag Harbor recently of the late Nelson Mandela, who united his country, and who became a heroic symbol for courage and justice worldwide.
Wakeford said he had been led to believe as he grew up that Mandela was a terrorist, but came to realize that his struggle against apartheid had been justified.
“The day I joined the army was the day he was released — he was public enemy number one,” said Wakeford. “He was the face of the enemy.”
Yet, in the end, Wakeford and many others of his South African peers were utterly won over by the sight of Mandela wearing the Springboks’ captain’s jersey at the 1995 World Cup — a remarkable gesture of reconciliation considering his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island.
“He taught us that we can exceed our expectations. He had the spirit, the power to change the world.”
“He spoke to us in a way we could understand, knowing that sport was a powerful metaphor for unity. When we saw him wearing that Number 6 jersey, the jersey of the national team’s captain, we all — all of us white guys — shouted, ‘Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!’ ”
“That’s how it was. It was a joyful occasion. Rugby was a white sport and he was embracing it. That gesture of his was masterful. He created hope where there had been despair. He was more powerful in breaking down racial barriers than a government. . . . He had no ego. He was all for the common good. I’m so glad we had him in our lifetime.”