Over the months that followed, he met with the Springboks players and their coaches and developed a relationship with them. He worked tirelessly to break down barriers among his black supporters, convincing them the Springboks' motto of "One Team, One Country" could legitimately apply to all of them, not a handful of the elite.
The success of the Springboks galvanized South Africa. And, when they made it to the finals of the World Cup against New Zealand, Nelson Mandela chose that moment to appear in one of the team's trademark jerseys.
In doing so, he stunned both his loyal followers, who were so conditioned to hate the jersey, and his onetime detractors, who had been so conditioned to hate the man now wearing the jersey.
By the time Mandela left the stadium, his South African Springboks 15-12 victors in a major upset, the crowd of more than 60,000, both whites and blacks alike, stood and chanted, in unison: "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!"
Nelson Mandela died on Thursday after a long illness. He was 95 years old, but lived long enough to see the dream he put into motion on that rugby field 18 years ago: a unified South Africa.
For that his people can thank their beloved agent of calm and reconciliation, who believed in the power of sport -- and the power of forgiveness.
Nearly three years ago, Nelson Mandela, wrapped up against the winter cold, appeared on the pitch in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium and waved to the 85,000-strong crowd assembled for the World Cup final. This was not a head of state emeritus simply engaging in a sporting ritual. This was the closing of a circle.
Mandela was 92 years old and had been ill. A few weeks earlier, he had buried his great-granddaughter. But once again, he felt he had to be there.
Father of the Rainbow Nation, Mandela was about to complete the successful hosting of the biggest event in sports, something that would never have happened without him. That was enough to brave the elements and push his frail body one more time. But there was another reason.
While not being a soccer enthusiast himself, Mandela felt a debt to the game and what it had meant to his comrades in the struggle against apartheid. For 18 years, Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned on Robben Island, a rock five miles and a million orders of magnitude away from the genteel streets of Cape Town, South Africa. As political prisoners, they had little to do but read what little they could get their hands on, let their minds dream and play soccer.
Thus was born the Makana Football Association, in part because one of the few books allowed on Robben Island was the FIFA handbook listing the Laws of the Game. The prisoners formed a league and played against each other. These weren't pickup games; this was proper, bureaucratized sports, with clubs and officials and referees and a commissioner. They kept meticulous records, and they wrote letters to each other to arrange games and kick-off times, even though they might just be in the next cell over. They mimicked normality through sports, both in the joy of playing and in the tedium of record-keeping.