For decades, the people of the country were at each other’s throats. Allegations and truisms of racial abuse dot the country’s colourful history; people were being murdered because of their race, people were being discriminated from job and education opportunities because of the colour of their skin. The country was a melting pot of races, but the resulting stew was bitter, acrid and tainted. Something needed to be changed.
You may be forgiven to think that the description of the above refers to Malaysia. But in fact, it refers to South Africa, and the days of apartheid. It’s a truly remarkable story of modern human history that South Africa was able to pull itself out of a nosedive of racial destruction, largely due to the efforts of one man, Nelson Mandela.
National unity is not achieved through an arching concept of “togetherness”; you can’t legislate harmony. You can’t tell people, “let’s forget our differences and hug each other (and mean it)”. 1Malaysia, an interesting idea as it is, is certainly not enough for Malaysia.
Mandela faced the same problems that the leaders of our country face today — a nation with a tattered racial history, trying to pull itself together. He realized that South Africa will never fulfill its potential unless the people worked together, and this meant putting aside a ton of historical and emotional baggage. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did some of this, but even that was not enough. All good causes need a hero, and Mandela was savvy enough to realize that, impressive as he is, he wasn’t that hero the people needed. He needed someone that could represent South Africa as a whole. He found it in the South African rugby team.
In that second interview, he explained how he had first formed an idea of the political power of sport while in prison; how he had used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an instrument in the grand strategic purpose he set for himself during his five years as South Africa’s first democratically elected president: to reconcile blacks and whites and create the conditions for a lasting peace in a country that barely five years earlier, when he was released from prison, had contained all the conditions for civil war.
To blacks, rugby was the hated symbol of apartheid. To Afrikaners, as Mandela put it, it was a religion. His job was to try to become the father of the whole nation: to make everybody feel that he symbolised their identity and values. He set himself the task of persuading the country to come together around the national rugby team – which he would achieve with startling success at the World Cup final, when hordes of Afrikaner fans sang the Xhosa words of the new national anthem, once the symbol of black defiance.
When Malaysia made the finals of the AFF Suzuki cup, and then trounced Indonesia in the first leg here at Bukit Jalil, the joys of the nation were clear to see. The team, a multi-racial lot of talented youngsters, put together a great show for the crowd. To a man, we cheered them on. As a nation, we cheered them on. Our differences were forgotten during those glorious 90 minutes.
Could football do for Malaysia what rugby did for South Africa?
That’s an interesting question, and something that only people much wiser than me will be able to answer. What i can say though, is that with each goal being scored that night, it felt like arrows of pride were being rifled into my heart for Malaysia. Regardless of what happens during the return leg, even if we lose 5-0, we will always have that great night to remember. What if we could celebrate many more such nights? What if then?