The 16th Man Doc of the Week

The 16th Man

It was a pivotal moment in the birth of a new South Africa. When Nelson Mandela took to the field in a Springboks jersey to congratulate winning captain Francois Pienaar following South Africa’s victory over New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup final, it healed wounds on both sides in a country deeply divided for decades by hatred and suspicion. BT Sport 2, Sun, Feb 11th 15.15

The historic events of that time are known to most through Clint Eastwood’s excellent award-winning film Invictus which starred Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Pienaar. The 16th Man covers the same ground. The difference is that, this time, the story is told by those who were there.

Narrated by Freeman himself (who also served as executive producer), it is a tale full of tension and drama as, with their team winning 15-12 deep into the second period of extra-time, the whole of South Africa waited for the referee to blow the final whistle. With the New Zealanders on the attack, it seemed that time was standing still. But the whistle finally came, a nation rejoiced and what followed has become one of the most iconic images of recent history.

It is a moment that still brings tears to the eyes of those who witnessed it. Talking about it, even two decades on, and the emotion is still palpable. Mandela, an inmate of the notorious Robben Island prison for 27 years, makes his way onto the pitch wearing a Springboks jersey. It was a magnificent gesture, a call for forgiveness and reconciliation from the man who had been elected President just a year earlier. It also showed the important role that sport can play in bringing people together.

Olive branch

Why were Mandela’s actions so significant? How is it that they are remembered so vividly more than 20 years later? There was a time in South Africa when the Springboks would have been seen as a white man’s team, a source of Afrikaner pride in the face of vehement protest at home and abroad. Only a few short years earlier most black South Africans would have had nothing but contempt for them. On June 24th 1995 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg and even though there was only one black player in the squad in winger Chester Williams, all that changed.

It was the beginning of a new era for the country - black and white could stand together as equals under the flag. They were all South Africans.

Directed by Clifford Bedsell (Killers Don’t Cry and The Long Walk of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela), The 16th Man also reveals the doubts that Mandela himself had in the lead up to the tournament. He knew it was an opportunity to bring all parties together, but was it too early? Were the wounds too deep that they might be healed so quickly? It was a massive gamble for the new president. His own supporters had waited 27 years for his release from prison. They had stayed loyal, but was this asking too much of them?

And what of the white community? They were already suspicious of him – would they see his embracing of the Springbok jersey as an act of appropriation? He had much to ponder. There was no guarantee of success, but Mandela felt that it was a risk worth taking. He was right.


Bedsell explains what inspired him to make the documentary. “Nelson Mandela is a hero of mine. His personal story has inspired millions across the globe to take action and make our world a better place,” he said.

“I am passionate about the 1995 Rugby World Cup and its effect on South Africa as a turning point in the nation's history. Mandela used rugby to heal a deeply divided nation when traditional politics failed. Put simply, sport transformed a country and undoubtedly saved lives. As Mandela said best, "Sport has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has…...It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers."

There is no doubt that the events of that fateful day proved him right and will ring down through the ages for centuries to come.

Images: Getty/INPHO

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to for more sports news and stories or to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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