Backing the Springboks
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
This week, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series continued with “The 16th Man.” This doc chronicles the role of rugby in helping unify blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s centered around Nelson Mandela’s risky “magnanimous gesture” to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and back the majority white South African Springboks, culminating with their improbable victory and its unifying symbolism for a nation starting a healing process.
It features interviews with players, including Afrikaner captain François Pienaar, alongside an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who doubted Mandela’s actions, and a few brief comments from Desmond Tutu that echo his belief in a “God of surprises.”
The film’s director quotes Mandela’s post-victory words: “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.” Often sports documentaries seem to exaggerate this sentiment; in this case, the documenting feels very authentic, even without knowing how long the impact lasted for the people of South Africa.