BERLIN, New Jersey — With the recent passing of former South African President, anti-apartheid activist and philanthropist, Nelson Mandela, the global community has come together to reflect on the work of his life. Mandela is famous for his revolutionary efforts that had him jailed, internationally beloved and eventually, brought him to power to lead a nation torn apart by racist policies that left the country broken and economically irrelevant.
He oversaw everything from the framing of the South African constitution to its reemergence into the global economy — and even South Africa’s rise as a leading competitor in international sports with the 1995 World Cup win.
Sports have long been lauded to have benefits beyond the individual athlete’s body or a team’s confidence in competition. Sports can be utilized as a tool of development to rebuild communities and fight poverty.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela, who died Thursday, was often quoted as saying. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
Sports can be utilized to overcome inequalities and can help disenfranchised communities participate where they would otherwise be excluded, as was the case in a post-reconciliation South Africa. To effectively utilize sports as a tool of development, it must be inclusive. When sports are equitable their inclusivity can overcome the structural inequities that frame conflict and allow for vulnerable people to not be as marginalized.
Sports offer an education that cannot be found in institutional settings. It offers valuable life skills that can help many overcome some of the barriers that poverty maintains. Nelson Mandela grew up in an English school tradition, which assumed that sports relays values, builds character, shows children how to work hard and play together.
Mandela even organized a limited sports program while imprisoned in the brutal conditions of Robben Island. Years after his release, Mandela referred to soccer games played on the Island as, “more than a game. It can create hope where there was once despair … this game made us feel alive.”
For those who are stuck in poverty and conflict, sports can be one of the few positive affordances available to the poor and exploited.
In the United States, there are nearly 16 million children living in poverty and nearly 50 percent will spend more than half their lives below the poverty line. Minorities in the U.S. are two-and-a-half times more likely to spend majority of their childhood in poverty, greatly limiting their opportunities.
Many young impoverished children turn to sports.
Not just for the dream of professional success and riches, but for the simple fact that it keeps them busy, keeps them out of trouble and away from crime — and helps build the kind of character needed to lift one’s self out of poverty.
This impact can be seen locally and globally. According to the website crimepreventiontips.com, parents should get their children involved in sports not only because it takes up their time and keeps them out of trouble, but because it helps them become more social, to better cooperate with others and not get in trouble. This means they will be invested in positive group activities that reaffirm the self, promote cohesion, and the benefits or working hard and following rules.
Sporting events can be used to invigorate communities with money and interest, and major sporting events can benefit entire countries with economic growth. Nelson Mandela worked hard to get South Africa involved in international sports. The rugby World Cup win in 1995 was followed by the 1996 African Cup of nations in soccer and the 2003 Cricket World Cup.
Nelson Mandela truly understood the potential of sports to provide dignity to those denied it and hope in the face of state-sponsored oppression. It has the capacity to undermine discrimination with resistance and ability to support the individual child and help build character. It also imparts the life skills that can be used to help unite a society and build the cohesion that lifts communities out of suffering together.
– Nina Verfaillie