During the British Open awards presentation ceremony yesterday, golfer Ernie Els made three mentions of Nelson Mandela and how much he’s meant to South Africa. In a post victory interview he did the same thing, recalling how Mandela became president the same time Els first went on tour, how Mandela had phoned him after his US Open victory, how much Mandela had meant to South Africa’s democracy.
Golf is the most white and conservative of major sports, and this was a special moment. South Africa is a troubled country, with vast disparities of wealth and skills—but it is definitely muddling through as a democracy. No one in the (establishment conservative) circles I traveled in during the apartheid era imagined that was possible. I’ve heard white South Africans speak with incredible warmth about Mandela, but never before someone of Els’s fame.
Leaders of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, including Bishop Tutu, have made the pointed but obvious comparison between South African apartheid and the regime Israel has imposed on the occupied West Bank. The comparison is telling, not the least bit unfair to Israel, and will be made more often. So it merits our appreciation to hear a sports hero like Els (winner of a major championship in three different decades) to speak with such warmth and respect about Nelson Mandela. It is possible for different peoples to share the same land –without walls and checkpoints and structural racism.