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Chimes of Freedom Day

On Freedom Day I was reminded of how crucial sport was in the binding of the nation back in 1994. Because of the significance of the Springboks winning the World Cup in 1995 and Bafana Bafana winning the African Cup of Nations in 1996, historians tend to gloss over 1994, but it was a fascinating time.

For instance, in May 1994, on the very day of his inauguration as President, Nelson Mandela went to a soccer match! There were 80 000 at Ellis Park for a friendly between South Africa and Zambia. Halftime took 35 minutes as Madiba was introduced to the teams and inevitably, riding a wave of positive emotions, Bafana Bafana won 2-1.

By July, President Mandela had too much on his plate, so it was his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who flew to London for the most significant game of cricket South Africa had played since readmission.

Some might dispute that fact, claiming the three ODIs against India in 1991, the World Cup in 1992 and the one-off test against the West Indies that same year. But this was the first time South Africa had played England in a test match since the D'Oliveira affair of 1968.

It was the tying up of a 26-year-old loose end. More than that, it was at Lord's, the home of cricket. And even more than that, South Africa won a crushing victory, bowling out their hosts for 99 on the fourth evening to win by 356 runs. Kepler Wessels got a century, Allan Donald took five wickets and Brian McMillan 3-16 to wrap up the match.

There was a smoking gun, however. South Africa's 15-man touring squad contained not a single player of colour. On the other side of the world, the Springboks were on tour in New Zealand. And just as would be the case at the 1995 World Cup, the only player of colour in the squad was the great Chester Williams.

It was not a happy tour, with the All Blacks winning the first two tests and the third being drawn. Johan le Roux was sent home for chewing Sean Fitzpatrick's ear and when the Boks returned to this country, coach Ian McIntosh was fired. It seems amazing that 10 months later they were World Champions, but that's what happened under new coach Kitch Christie.

In mid-June of 1994, a mere two months into the new South Africa, Ernie Els announced himself by winning the US Open at Oakmont. Els was just 24 and won in the early hours of Tuesday morning, South African time, thanks to a three-way, 18-hole, playoff against Colin Montgomerie and Loren Roberts.

Those who stayed up to watch it on SuperSport may remember their shredded nerves as Ernie left himself one six-footer for par after another. A few weeks later I bumped into Ernie's caddy, Rickie Roberts, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Illovo.

He told me that those six footers were even worse for the man on the bag and it started to show towards the end. At that point, Ernie turned to Rickie, grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him and said, "Will you calm down."

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