Based: Cape Town
Francois Pienaar led the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team, to victory in the 1995 World Cup, helping Nelson Mandela unite South Africa.
Athlete. Born Jacobus Francois Pienaar, January 2, 1967, in Vereeniging, South Africa. Served as captain and flanker for the South African Springboks national rugby team in the 1990s. Won 29 international caps (awards for appearing in international tournament games) and led the 1995 Springboks to a Rugby Union World Cup championship. Pienaar’s achievement in sport on such an international level during Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid presidency was instrumental in helping unite all South African people behind a common cause.
Francois Pienaar was the eldest of four boys born into a working class Afrikaner family in Vereeniging, South Africa. He attended high school in Witbank, a coal mining area in eastern South Africa. There he won an athletic scholarship to the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) to play rugby and study law. In 1989, Pienaar joined the Transvaal Province rugby team and played with them for a few years. During this time Transvaar won the Super 10, Currie Cup, and Lion Cup under Pienaar’s leadership. In 1993, he was selected to be part of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks.
Between 1994 and 1995, South Africa was going through a historic transition away from apartheid. Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk were carefully steering the country from minority white rule to majority black rule through difficult and sometimes treacherous negotiations. During this time, Mandela had taken in interest in rugby. The Springboks had only one “colored” player on the squad, Chester Williams. As both South Africa and its national rugby team entered international mainstream news, Francois Pienaar realized that his individual participation in rugby and the team transcended mere sport. He used his elevated position to advocate for national reconciliation stating that the team represented the entire nation of South Africa, not just the white minority. Nelson Mandela encouraged the nation’s black population to get behind the previously detested Springbok team as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby Union World cup.
The Springboks were seeded ninth in the World Cup tournament and not expected to dethrone incumbent champions Australia. But in a stunning match, they defeated the Australians in the first round, 27-18. Then in successive games, the Springboks defeated Romania, Canada, Western Samoa, and France. South Africa and New Zealand met in the final round at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Francois Pienaar played in an extended game despite an injury to his calf muscle. The Springboks were ahead 9-6 at halftime, but New Zealand evened the score at 9-all in the second half and the score remained unchanged at match end forcing the game into extra time. Both teams scored in the first half of extra time, but South Africa finally scored a drop goal to with the final 15 to 12. In what has become one of the most iconic moments in sport, Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby jersey with Pienaar’s number, presented the William Webb Ellis Cup to the South African team captain Pienaar to the delight of the 65,000 capacity crowd.
>During the aftermath of the victory, Francois Pienaar’s charisma and leadership abilities propelled him to international recognition for his playing talents and God-like status in his home country where rugby is considered a religion. He proved himself to be an inspirational leader and one of the men who could claim to have helped unite South Africa behind a common cause. But oddly enough in 1996, Pienaar was dropped from the team by Springbok coach Andre Markgaaff, allegedly for feigning an injury during a match. The controversial decision was also complicated by Markgraaff’s later dismissal as coach after a recording of him making racial remarks was uncovered. Pienaar was subsequently offered a spot back on the team, but he refused and never played for South Africa again.
Francois Pienaar left for England to become a player-coach for Watford’s Saracens rugby club. Under his leadership the Saracens won the Tetley’s Bitter Cup (Anglo-Welsh Cup) in 1998 and came in second during the Guinness Premiership, the top division in the English rugby system. During the next two seasons, the Saracens came in second and forth in the standings qualifying for the European Cup both times. In 2000, Pienaar retired as a player to become the Saracens’ CEO and remained as coach. Due to the team’s lack of success in the subsequent two years, Pienaar believed it was best if he stepped down as CEO and coach in 2002. That same year, he returned to South Africa.
Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela are the subject of a 2008 book by author John Carlin entitled, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation that spotlights the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup during post-apartheid South Africa. The film rights were bought by American actor Morgan Freeman for the 2009 film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Pienaar.