Joe HallComment

THE PRESIDENT AT MY WEDDING: SHAUN BARTLETT AND THE EVERLASTING INFLUENCE OF NELSON MANDELA

Joe HallComment
THE PRESIDENT AT MY WEDDING: SHAUN BARTLETT AND THE EVERLASTING INFLUENCE OF NELSON MANDELA
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In the weeks since the death of Nelson Mandela, certain moments, images, quotes and figures from his history have made recurring appearances on our television screens, on newspaper pages and in the text of tribute.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg is another of those moments, and Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springbok side whose green and gold jersey was adorned by Mandela, has become one of those figures. The image of the two shaking hands as Mandela hands over the trophy is arguably one of the most enduring images of his life and a symbol for a South Africa that was moving towards reconciliation.

Mandela’s influence over Pienaar was well documented in the Hollywood film Invictus. Yet rugby was not the only sport whose power was recognised and harnessed by Mandela, Pienaar not the only sportsman who he embraced and inspired. There were many, including the late Baby Jake Matlala, a boxer who gave one of his Championship belts to Mandela. Another was Shaun Bartlett.

Bartlett was a Bafana Bafana captain who scored at a World Cup, won the African Cup of Nations, scored against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier League and whose volley for Charlton Athletic against Leicester in April 2001 was voted goal of the season.

Yet above all that ranks the day when his president, Nelson Mandela, showed up at his wedding.

The appearance hadn’t exactly been planned: “I befriended his granddaughter when she was studying in the USA and I was playing there. We used to be in regular contact, so two days before my wedding I get this call and her first comment was: ‘My grandfather’s upset that he wasn’t invited to the wedding.’

“Initially I thought it was one of the relatives, or somebody that I knew. I thought, ‘what do you mean?’ She said: ‘Mr. Mandela’s upset you didn’t invite him.’

“I’m thinking firstly, who’s going to invite the President of the country to your wedding? He’s got too many things on his plate; he’s never going to have time. And then she said: ‘No, he’s going to be in Cape Town, he’s going to be at the Test, and he wants to come to your wedding.’ ”

It was 1997 at the time and Bartlett was playing for New York MetroStars in the MLS, his football career well underway and a bright future ahead of him. He would go on to become one of Bafana Bafana’s greats, the second highest scorer in their history. However, even before he reached the Match of the Day highlight reel, Bartlett’s career was remarkable for any South African who grew up under apartheid.

“To be honest, I never thought I’d have a career in football because of the circumstances and the conditions that were put on us as footballers [during apartheid]…it was difficult, you weren’t even allowed to play in certain areas.”

From 1961 until to 1992, South Africa had been suspended from the footballing community.

For those non-white South Africans with aspirations of becoming a footballer, the dream could only be realised with great compromise. By choosing to play for a white team, black or “coloured” South Africans would be ostracized and expelled from their community. They had joined the enemy. Defected. A young Shaun Bartlett growing up in South Africa would have had a difficult choice to make; football or family.

“The guys that - they used to say “defected” - to the white leagues, you were isolated, you wouldn’t have been allowed to go back to the township or area that you lived in.”

“It was a difficult decision. If I had to pursue a career in football, I don’t think I would have gone and defected over to the other leagues. That would have compromised my own life and my families’ life.”

Thankfully, Bartlett just escaped ever having to take the decision to turn his back on football. Bartlett was 18 when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. He signed his first professional contract with Cape Town Spurs in 1992 – something that would have never have been possible until only a year before when apartheid was officially lifted.

“Signing a professional contract was pretty much unheard of during that time. But because of his [Mandela’s] release, it pretty much opened doors for everybody in South Africa.”

1996. For English fans the year will forever be known as football’s supposed homecoming. Euro ’96 was El Tel and the boys bellowing out “God Save The Queen, a summer festival of football that was supposed to end with England reclaiming glory on home soil. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way but international football’s other major tournament that year did stick to the script. The African Cup of Nations brought football home to millions of South Africans as Bafana Bafana lifted the cup.

Just as he was a year previously with the Springboks, Mandela was right there at the moment of triumph, but this time he was sporting the Bafana Bafana jersey. Mandela had recognized that as a symbol for a united country, victory for the majority of South Africans, victory in the football was far more important than victory in the rugby – and he let it be known to Bartlett and his teammates.

“Football in South Africa is massive, bigger than rugby and it’s supported predominantly by black people,” says Bartlett, “he [Mandela] saw the AFCON as a way of uniting everybody again post 1995, to get the country together, to rally behind another national team.”

"He would come to our hotel before every game and meet with the players. Even if he didn’t speak or say a word, just the mere fact that he was there inspired and motivated us enough to go out and try and perform.”

Of course, with players like Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Phil Masinga and Quinton Fortune in the side, South Africa were.

“He just had that little something were just being in his presence would have given you extra motivation and inspire you to do greater things.”

Bartlett scored just once during the 1996 tournament, but his importance to Bafana Bafana grew over the following years. He was a key part of their 1998 and 2002 World Cup sides, and was made captain by Carlos Quieroz in 2000, leading his side to a goalless draw against the then World and European Champions France in that year’s Nelson Mandela Inauguration Challenge Cup – an annual play-off between South Africa and an invited national side. Each year the side would visit Mandela before the game and, while Bartlett was captain, Mandela would be presented with and photographed in his own no.9 shirt.

Just like any person who has had the responsibility of leadership in modern times, Mandela was an example to follow: “Up to this day, if I have to inspire any of my captains or players I would say to them; being a leader doesn’t mean you have to show you’re bigger than them. It’s actually inspiring them, and helping them to achieve better.” The difference for Shaun Bartlett was that he was not just inspired by Mandela’s astounding achievements or someone else’s account of his humility, he experienced first-hand a staggeringly personable world leader; Mandela, one of the most incredible men in history, stopping to ask you about your family.

When I asked Bartlett to recount a particular moment of inspiration from their together, I was expecting a notable action, a telling joke or a stirring speech, perhaps a line from Invictus. Yet what stuck out for Bartlett was Mandela’s simple humanity.

“It was always a personal experience. That was the one thing that sticks out for me. You know, when you meet dignitaries it’s always formalities; they do certain things because it’s their job, or they’re meeting the players because they have to. Yet whenever I met him he would always ask: ‘How’s your wife? How are the boys?’ So every experience for me was always personal. And it wasn’t just me, if you ask any other player - he would ask them similar questions. He knew about the players, he knew about their lives. That, for me, was a different experience to anybody else I’ve met before.”

So perhaps it’s not so surprising after all, that Mandela wanted to attend the wedding of one of his country’s most promising athletes. The President turned up at Bartlett’s wedding almost unannounced, with none of the congregation aware of his belated invite. Rushed last-minute arrangements were hastily put together to accommodate the head of state’s arrival, including extra parking spaces for his security, ambulances and a bomb squad. “It was a bit of a nightmare, but like I say to everyone, it’s one of those nightmares I’d re-live every day of my life”, says Bartlett, “When I heard this big roar outside I knew it wasn’t my wife, I knew it was Mandela…it was a big surprise when he walked into the church.”

Once again, for Bartlett it wasn’t the legend that preceded him or the bombast that greeted his arrival that stands out from his appearance that day.

“He showed everyone what type of person he was that day. The wedding was at 3 o’clock. He was there at 2:45. He came before my wife because he didn’t want to steal her thunder and that is the person that he was. “

“Whether it was the King or the Queen, or a normal person in the street, he had the same respect for everyone.”

Follow Joe on Twitter @joehallwords.

Nelson Mandela portrait by Paul Blomkamp.

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