When Francois Pienaar received that famous Rugby World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela in 1995, he knew he had written history. But what he didn’t know then is that he would go on to inspire not only Hollywood, but also 2,000 young people – and one Big Issue vendor.
Just days before the Olympics kicked off in London last week, sporting heroes from around the world gathered for the Beyond Sport Summit to talk about the power of sport to achieve social change. No one less than Muhammad Ali and David Beckham presented awards to young people who made an impact in their communities, five-time Olympic champion Ian Thorpe talked about determination from a young age and Beyond Sport Ambassador Tony Blair underlined the importance of recognising the power of sport to better societies.
With the former UK Prime Minister on the panel was one man who, seventeen years after lifting the World Cup Trophy in South Africa, runs a thriving sports management business and a charity that aims to coach a future generation of leaders. Here, Francois Pienaar explains why.
Your charity Make A Difference (MAD) aims to ‘raise the ceiling’ rather than the floor. What do you mean by that?
“Raising the floor means grassroots, and at a grassroots level you’ve got to give people more skills, more opportunities to fulfil their dreams, to maximise the skill set that they have. And if you look at education, there is a lot of that to be done. But at the same time, if you look at every village, and every town, there is a bright child who could be a future leader. And there is also in every town people that want to help and that want to make a difference, they just don’t know how to do it. Imagine if you can connect them, what a powerful change that would be for South Africa, and also maybe even Africa and the world. It is [a matter of] giving someone that has got a skillset the opportunity to fulfil their potential. And that will raise the ceiling. It’s simple.”
You take on board youngsters with leadership potential and develop their talents through education and mentoring for years. Why do you want to focus on such long-term involvement?
“There is no finish line. I started the foundation by saying to my friends: I’ve got a little bit of spare time and some spare money; let’s help one or two children. Ten years later, the group of friends has grown. I’ve got 25 members and they’re all friends, and we’ve helped over 2,000 children through the programme. That is what I’m doing in my spare time, and sport. I was in banking and I left 2.5 years ago to follow my passion for sport, so I set up a media and sports management business [in South Africa]. I have seen the power of sport and how it can change communities
In South Africa, we still have a lot of issues, a hell of a lot of issues, but you can address those issues through sport. One of the issues we have tried to address is women abuse, and children abuse, which is diabolical in South Africa. It is incredibly sad. Through sport, we have raised awareness. We do it through various mechanisms, but we always get people to talk about it, sports people to talk about it.
To the Man of the Match [in rugby] we give 50 roses and then on television he would say which lady he would like to donate these to. And then the next day we deliver them to the lady if his choice. It is normally shared between the mum and the girlfriend, which is wonderful.
Everything I’ve done has always had a Corporate Social Investment angle, whether it is in sport or in business. Sustainability is crucial, and in our foundation it is key. Because in a bad economy -and we are going through a terrible economy at the moment – we can’t say to that individual: ‘you have to go back to the township’. So we have that responsibility to make sure it is sustainable.”
Do you feel pressure when you have so many young people relying on you for such a long time?
“Absolutely not. That’s what you do. If you don’t put pressure on yourself [pauses]… you’ve got to put pressure. I’m constantly wanting to bring more on, until my team says: ‘we can’t do any more’.”
Do you think one sport works better than the other in achieving change?
“It depends. There are the three or four biggest sports in the world and it depends on the country. Football is huge, athletics is huge, and in America you have the NFL, basketball and women’s volleyball is massive. It doesn’t really matter what sport it is, as long as it is a big sport in that country. And if you can use that as a powerful vehicle for change and make people think: ‘why don’t we use it?’, you have the opportunity to change people’s views and perceptions, because they love sport, they love the brand, they love the athlete. And if that athlete says to them: ‘Think about somebody else, what are you doing in your community?’, then again it plants a seed and that little orchard can grow.”
You have seen many youngsters move on through your project. Are there any particular examples that stand out to you?
“There are great success stories. One of the kids studies at Harvard currently, engineering. Now studying engineering at Harvard is one thing, but he [also] played the main role in a Shakespeare play, which was an incredible achievement. To be able to have that grasp of the English language and acting is amazing. We had one other bright kid at the centre and I said: ‘what do you want to do?’ and he said: ‘I want to be a State’s Attorney. I said: ‘There’s not a lot of money in that’ and he said: ‘It’s not about the money.’ That put the biggest smile on my face.”
You often mention the importance of education to the work you do. Is it a struggle to bridge the gap?
“It always is. Often when you talk about education, people think it is high level education, but we are talking basic maths and basic literacy, that is also very important. Through that, you develop leaders. With the right value system, these leaders can create change, powerful change.”
You have lived in Britain for several years [as player, coach and CEO of Saracens rugby club] and have travelled a lot with the teams. Do you see differences in the role sport plays in different places?
“Every country is different. When I lived here [in the UK], I was asked to speak in the House of Commons, and the topic was the power of sport, so I did some research. I learned that in Camden [area of London] there was just one communal sports field, so what do the young people do? How do their express their energy? And when you dig a little deeper, you realise that because there is no social prospect, and no sport, they will get involved in gangs and get involved in stuff that is going to affect their lives negatively. Every country is different, but every big city has those challenges, around the world. You can get depressed by it, or look at what people are doing in the communities to create change.”
Just before the interview, Pienaar took part in a discussion panel on sports for social change. One of the speakers was Alberto Vollmer, corporate CEO and founder of Project Alcatraz, which disarms gangs in Venezuela through an intense labour and rugby programme. In a country that doesn’t play rugby and an area full of violence and corruption, he managed to cut the homicide rate by almost 40 per cent. It is examples like these, says Pienaar, that society should focus on:
“I just met this gentleman who is disarming gangs in Venezuela through rugby: incredible. I mean, he should be on the front cover of Time Magazine, but he won’t be of the front cover of Time Magazine. That’s just life.”
You said earlier that your work doesn’t have a finish line. Do you think there will ever be a point where you think: once I have achieved that, I will be satisfied?
“It always will be a journey. We’re always talking about that ‘tipping point’. I guess a tipping point would be that more and more communities embrace the art -or maybe it is the responsibility- of giving. To give; unselfishly, without expecting. That I think is a tipping point in the world.”
Do you ever come into contact with pupils for whom help has come too late?
“We do get that in our organisation. Sometimes you can give someone all the support and it doesn’t work. And then you make a decision: that his or her place should go to somebody else who deserves it. You get that, but you should never be depressed by it. If it was that easy, then everybody would be doing it, but it’s not. But the younger you start, with the right value system and a lot of love and care and attention, the more success a student will have. The journey will become a more enjoyable journey. We’re on the road and it’s only a small road now, but we want to make the road a bit bigger; maybe even a highway at some stage.”
When you coach and follow the pupils in your programme for so many years, is, it hard to let go when they reach the end of the programme?
“No, that is why you start. You start to let go. It is the greatest thing to let go, because it means that that person will fly and that that person is ready to go.”
When you started out in rugby, did you think that one day you’ll be where you are today, and be a role model to so many young people?
[thinks for a while]. “No. I mean, I was very fortunate, I had a love for rugby and I played cricket too and I have always been captain of the team. I liked the responsibility and the pressure, I loved it. But I never really thought about it past rugby. That is why I wanted an education. I mean, back then it cost us money to play rugby. In the 1995 World Cup we were amateurs. Like the former Olympians: they had to go and put food on the table, they had no sponsors. To me, that was wonderful. I have absolutely no regrets. Although I’ve met some athletes that are very angry [about it]. I think if you want to compare it, you can look at their skill set. They would have been like the best CEO in their position, but there wasn’t a job. And they were such good athletes. So when their time came -and every athlete’s time comes with age- then what next? So for me, I realised [that] I needed an education. But, you know, we didn’t do it for an income, we were adrenaline junkies.”
And maybe you still are.
[laughs] “Yes, definitely, definitely.”
We are advised that our time with Francois Pienaar is up. I am contemplating a final question but before I get to ask it, he starts to talk:
“I always buy my Big Issue. We live in Cape Town, on Clifton, and there is this beautiful lady that stands on the street corner and she always has those little white dots.. [smiles and points his fingers at his cheeks, visualising the face decorations worn by many of The Big Issue South Africa’s female vendors].
I am glad to hear you’re a fan.
“I am a fan. I think that, again, it is about giving people responsibility. Sometimes I don’t read as much of The Big Issue as I should, but I always realise that she is there and that it is a job. And if you don’t support her in the job, she can’t support the family below her. It is wonderful. I am a big fan of The Big Issue.”