Broad and tall, Francois Pienaar is a big man in every sense of the word. A man who ploughs his own furrow. He muscled his way to win the Rugby World Cup before millions of viewers and nearly 20 years later had the guts to dress up as a potato chip in a Lays commercial.
“Sometimes you will be remembered for that, not for the rugby career. When I check-in at the airport the lady at the counter would look at me and say: ‘Oh, the Lays guy,’” says Pienaar.
In many ways, Pienaar is an enigma. He is the law graduate who never argued a case; the conservative Afrikaaner who led his reluctant players to coach black youngsters in the townships; a man as South African as a springbok, who now spends most of his life outside of the country. On the way, he is trying to find the next Pienaar destined for rugby glory.
The image of Pienaar accepting the World Cup trophy from former president Nelson Mandela, dressed in a number six jersey, is one that lived long in the memory.
“Seeing Mr Mandela wearing my jersey was very incredible, emotional and humbling,” says Pienaar.
Overnight Pienaar became a household name through that unifying moment—an Afrikaaner and a former political prisoner together.
“For Mandela to ask everyone in the country to support the Springboks as their team was unusual but also visionary. The 1995 story was a story about human triumph, where a country that was much divided got an opportunity to celebrate together. All religions and creeds became world champions for the first time.”
The celebrity status stuck. In March this year, Pienaar the businessman shared a stage with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, and Jordan Belfort, the American stockbroker, at the South African Success Summit in Johannesburg, before 5,000 delegates.
Pienaar and Belfort grew up worlds apart but both saw their life stories told by Hollywood. In the 2009 movie Invictus, Matt Damon played Pienaar. Leonardo DiCaprio played Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The only disappointment about the movie for Pienaar was the rugby.
“It’s the human story of how South Africa came together and there are a lot of emotional scenes that I like about it but I don’t like the rugby scenes. They are awful. If you played the game, rugby is more beautiful than what is shown in the movie. But, I can understand it was made for the American audiences.”
Pienaar has business interests in university sports development, media and entertainment but says his initiative, Make A Difference Foundation (MAD), is his way of giving back to the poor. Pienaar is the chairman of MAD and it enjoys the support of other former international captains, such as David Kirk, the first winner of the World Cup for New Zealand in 1987, John Eales of Australia, Martin Johnson of England, John Smit of South Africa and Nick Farr-Jones of Australia.
“Make A Difference gives back to the poor people. We founded it 10 years ago in order to help kids in the townships and impoverished areas,” he says.
“We get them to good schooling and give them financial backing to achieve success. One of our first learners we brought on board will be receiving an engineering degree at Harvard University this year,” says Pienaar.
Pienaar says these days he lives for sport development. He runs a business called Varsity Rugby which was founded in 2008. It gave birth to the Varsity Cup tournament, in which eight universities compete. A second tier competition, the Varsity Shield, arrived in 2011 and was then followed by the under-20 category, Young Guns.
“I am passionate about sport. My first love at school was cricket but rugby took over. I have been very privileged to see how sport can change people; it can transform people as well as communities and a country.”
Varsity Rugby not only makes money, Pienaar says it has produced nine Springboks (players that have represented South Africa internationally) and hundreds of professionals in the domestic leagues.
“Sport is powerful; it can unite or divide a nation. Rugby in the years of apartheid divided us and in the democracy it united us.”
Pienaar was among the first group of South African rugby players to play in Europe. He signed with Saracens in London and became CEO of the club, before returning to Africa to live in Cape Town.
He thinks it is naïve to stand in the way of players who want to maximize their earning potential in the richer overseas leagues. This is the exercising of freedom that Mandela would no doubt have approved of.
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