Commentary

Mandela left a path all can follow

Updated: December 6, 2013, 7:18 PM ET
By Cliff Drysdale | ESPN.com

Nelson MandelaGetty ImagesNelson Mandela speaking about the end of apartheid in 1961 before his imprisonment in 1963.

Editor's note: ESPN tennis analyst Cliff Drysdale was a young South African at college during the years that Nelson Mandela was persecuted, arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Drysdale continued to play tennis, representing South Africa in Davis Cup, until apartheid and a lifelong desire to become an American led him to move his family to the United States in 1970.


I've maintained an interest in my homeland, South Africa, and I believe Nelson Mandela is the greatest statesman of the second half of the last century.

Mr. Mandela's passing is a very sad moment, and I hope that the future would be guided by what he would have done. I'm hoping, desperately hoping, that South Africa's future is guided by asking that question.

He survived being in jail for all those years with no display of hard feelings. He was a warm, forgiving person.

He was inclusive. As president, he could have said: Let's redistribute the land and kick out the whites. He could have done that. But he wanted to develop a truly multiracial society. South Africa is on a good path if it stays that way.

The previous path was unsustainable.

I spent most of my young life in that era. I finally left because I was really tired of representing a system that was insane.

In South Africa during the time of Mandela's struggle and early imprisonment, apartheid was the first thing that we discussed over dinner and with friends. There were radical people on both sides: some people thought it was a great thing, and others, like Alan Paton, who wrote "Cry, the Beloved Country," were painted as "liberals."

[+] EnlargeDrysdale
AP PhotoCliff Drysdale has the most wins in Davis Cup in South Africa's history, but he left his country and eventually stopped representing it.

Television wasn't allowed in the country. The white government didn't want black people exposed to the kind of things they were exposed to in other countries. They were afraid of what might happen.

In those days, the South of the United States was still segregated. So apartheid seemed more acceptable generally, in a way, to the world. And in my early days playing tennis, I was focused on just being a part of the sporting world. Then things begin to change and South Africa became the pariah. We were always under the threat of a demonstration when we played a Davis Cup tie. It was challenging. The system was clearly unsustainable, and yet it lingered. 

I represented South Africa in Davis Cup starting in 1962 until eventually I said "enough." Protests greeted each tie. We played a Davis Cup tie where 70 percent of the spectators were actually protesters, which made it impossible to play the tie publicly. In 1974, South Africa won the Davis Cup because India refused to play us in the final. I begged South Africa to stop entering Davis Cup, because it was embarrassing.

They continued on, despite boycotts, but I did not. In 1976, the team was playing in Newport, Calif. A short time before the second day's match, protestors poured some substance -- paint or oil -- onto the court, which made it unplayable. In a way, that incident gave me first shot ever in TV. Barry Frank, because of his thoughts on South Africa, asked me to be a part of the re-air of the previous day's match.

Sports protests would continue until Mandela was released and apartheid was abolished.

Although Mandela is gone, his legacy is too strong to die. He was like Mahatma Gandhi but was more practical when it came to rebuilding a nation. As a result, Mandela influenced the world in a most important way. I think the United States can learn from him, and has, as our president said.

So can anybody, anywhere.

Cliff Drysdale

Tennis commentator
Cliff Drysdale, former championship player and an outspoken and influential leader in issues off the court since his playing days, has served as a tennis commentator for ESPN since the network's very first tennis telecast: the U.S. vs. Argentina in a Davis Cup match in Memphis, Tenn. on September 14, 1979. ESPN had debuted just one week earlier, on September 7. An analyst at first for ESPN and even earlier for CBS, Drysdale has served as the network's primary tennis host since the mid-1980s.

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