Mandela, the 16th Man | Inquirer Opinion
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Mandela, the 16th Man

/ 04:26 AM December 05, 2014

Rugby and national heroic leadership?

The connection may seem farfetched but some 20 years ago, during a World Rugby Cup, a nation, and then the world, witnessed that link. So inspiring were the events that two films were made, one in Hollywood titled “Invictus,” and another, an ESPN documentary, titled “The 16th Man.” The latter was part of a series of ESPN documentaries, called “30/30” and featuring sports history, turning points for various sports.


“The 16th Man” was slightly different, with the sport rugby becoming a backdrop to a larger historical event—a new nation seeking its identity. The documentary should be used in history classes, for a different take on sports.

I had never heard of the documentary but accidentally caught it on a cable sports channel in, of all places, Puerto Princesa, where I was attending a conference. I would have skipped the channel but I paused because the image of Nelson Mandela appeared on the screen. I sat down and watched the documentary until the end, totally riveted.


I also made a note to write about the film, which I later found uploaded on YouTube. What better way, I thought, to mark the first death anniversary of Mandela, who led South Africa out of decades of apartheid rule, in which whites wielded absolute power over populations labeled “coloreds” and “blacks”?

Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for leading armed resistance to apartheid, and when he was elected president many South Africans fretted about the possibility that he would seek vengeance, unleashing blacks against whites in South Africa.

But he called for reconciliation instead, a move that enraged many of the black nationalists.

Mandela did not waver, and found an opportunity to push the reconciliation envelope through rugby. In 1995, a year after his election, South Africa hosted the World Rugby Cup. Black nationalists called for a boycott, pointing out that the team, the Springboks, was totally white except for one player.

Nevertheless, Mandela called on South Africans, white or black, to support the Springboks. And to underscore his support, he visited the team wearing the Springbok cap.

The games in the 1995 Rugby Cup drew an increasingly racially mixed crowd, culminating in the championship game that pitted South Africa against a powerful New Zealand team. The game had to be extended because of a tie and, in the end, South Africa clinched the championship. The cheering of the crowd was a celebration of not just the rugby victory but also a nation finding its new identity.

“The 16th Man” used footage from 1995, including the championship game. I can tell you I’m not much of a rugby or football fan, but I was swept up by the emotions captured in the documentary, especially when an extension of the game was declared and the South African team, exhausted physically and emotionally, fought to win.


The documentary also featured interviews with members of the Springboks that played in 1995, with many moving scenes. Rugby players are big guys, with a tough image, but in the film they are shown teary-eyed, even weeping, as they recall how impressed they were by Mandela when he visited them, and when he cheered them to victory.

The title of the documentary draws from the 15-man composition of a union rugby team. The 16th man referred to Nelson Mandela.

This is a film for leadership training. Here was a politician who chose not to pander to popular opinion, which would have meant riding on enmity, allowing much-aggrieved blacks to push out whites.

Mandela was astute, too, maybe even shrewd, in recognizing how sports can be a bridge toward unity. But he took a gamble, and was probably motivated by the confidence that South Africans, despite decades of conflict in the apartheid era, would be able to put the past behind them and choose to move forward.

Today, almost half of the Springboks members are nonwhites, and in 2008 the team got its first nonwhite coach.

The ‘s-word’

I’m doing a two-in-one column today.

For some time now I’ve been thinking about doing a column on the “s-word.” It’s not a swear word but it’s still one that I’ve been trying to avoid using as a parent.

With Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago launching her book, “Stupid is Forever,” I thought this would be a perfect time to talk about the s-word and parenting experiences.

I tend to use that word a lot on the road, while driving, and it was my son who first noticed, asking innocently, “Are they really stupid?”

The first time he asked, I said, No, no one’s really stupid, and so we should not use that word. I do hold back and never use it to scold a child because that could affect their self-esteem. I actually grew up in an environment where it was used very often, when I couldn’t get something done properly, and to this day, I do hesitate before doing things where I would be labeled “stupid.” Psychologists call it “learned helplessness”: You just avoid doing it because you don’t want to fail, and be called stupid.

Anyway, I’d still (stupidly) lapse while driving, and the kids would remind me, “Dada, you said never to use ‘stupid.’” So one time I used “dumb,” but the kids weren’t satisfied: “That still means “stupid.’”

One day, feeling rather weary of stupid—wow, I’m feeling good—drivers, I told the kids, “You know, there are people who are really stupid, and that’s why I end up using the word, but I know we shouldn’t.”

Aba, my very wise son had a suggestion that he had picked up from my ex-partner: “Tito says they’re not tanga (stupid); they’re just sawa sa buhay (tired of life), and that’s why they drive that way.”

So these days, I hold my tongue and let the kids shout “Sawa sa buhay!” when a motorist does something, well, stupid.

The kids are growing up and they’re figuring out that a “bad word” isn’t bad in itself. It’s the context in which it’s used. They appreciate my not scolding them with “stupid” and laugh when I say instead, “That wasn’t very smart” or “Let’s not be silly,” knowing that what I want to say, really, is “That was stupid.”

Sometimes too, when they have a lapse, they beat me to it: “Tanga ko, no?” And I can answer, “Ikaw ang nagsabi (You said it).” They’re figuring that there’s karma in stupidity: Don’t blame others if your own stupidity makes life hard.

Other times, I can give them a Miriam Defensor Santiago look, accompanied by a Miriam Defensor Santiago laugh. They know, and I know, that stupid doesn’t have to be forever.

* * *

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