The legacy of a captain for life
Rugby stardom aside, the indomitable Francois Pienaar is also a gifted cricketer, law graduate, art lover, philanthropist and dad.
Of course, 1995 World Cup-winning captain of the mighty Springboks is the most common and direct introduction to the legendary Francois Pienaar. But that remains just one brilliant flash in the extraordinary life of a man as rich and balanced as the country he led to glory nearly two decades ago, at the shoulder of then president of the Rainbow Nation, Nelson Mandela.
Casting back to Pienaar’s boyhood in Witbank, a working class industrial town on the East Rand of Johannesburg, the makings of a modern Renaissance man were clear. ‘My first love was cricket,’ he explains. ‘I actually got into the national team for cricket before rugby. When we were growing up, sport was compulsory at school, which was fantastic. It taught all the kids so much. Sport teaches children values, makes them healthier and better individuals. So I was lucky to grow up in that environment.’ Young Pienaar had a rich childhood, but not a wealthy one. His father, Jan-Harm, toiled in the steel industry and Francois appears to have learnt the value of industry early on. During primary school holidays he worked at his uncle’s tyre business and as a teenager he employed his natural charms as a door- to-door salesman. Like he said in Ross van Reenen’s From Locker Room to Boardroom, ‘Successful people and the fear of poverty drove my ambitions, not wealth per se.’ Rugby did have a unique spot in young Francois’ life. ‘In South Africa, when you’re born and you’re a boy, you’re a rugby player,’ he explains. ‘The family will say, “He’s going to be a Springbok”.’
Except it wasn’t just Mr and Mrs Pienaar touting this young lad for rugby glory – ‘Mr Rugby’ himself, Danie Craven, did too. A 17-year-old Pienaar was representing the then South Eastern Transvaal at the annual inter-provincial competition named after Doc Craven, when the prescient moment occurred. ‘I had a mop of blonde hair in those days,’ continues Pienaar. ‘Dr Craven saw me playing one day and said, ‘That blonde from South Easterns, he’s gonna make it big one day’. I mean, that’s like a blessing from the Pope. Although I always did well and pushed the boundaries, that was my first big break.’
Now ‘on the radar’, as he puts it, Pienaar’s cricket and rugby prowess gave the determined youngster a shot at university. ‘My folks didn’t have the money to send me to university,’ he says. ‘I won scholarships to the Universities of Cape Town and Pretoria, where I wanted to go, but they weren’t worth much money.’ Eventually, the biggest offer of all came in from what was then Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit, now the University of Johannesburg. This proved a master stroke from what was hardly a recognised rugby hub in those days. In what one might call an undercard performance to the famous world championship in 1995, Pienaar soon led his unheralded side to the local league cup and then the national club title, overshadowing the traditional might of rugby strongholds like Stellenbosch University and Despatch Rugby Club. ‘So the radar became a national one,’ Pienaar recalls. ‘And these battles were all good for me as an individual. I always had to fight against a backdrop that said, “You’re not in the best team”. Making that team outperform the best gave me skills that stood me in good stead.’
But again, there was far more than rugby going on. The young leader still had to play cricket to fulfil the requirements of his scholarship. This fell away when injuries, especially a badly ‘busted up’ shoulder, severely hindered his bowling. His was also far from the modern phenomenon of student athletes who are professional sportsmen in all but name. In many ways Pienaar was just another dedicated student, alone in a new city and grafting to pass exams. ‘I was very much on my own at university,’ he recalls in a reflective tone. ‘I just wanted to pass, to get a degree. I don’t know why, but I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I didn’t want to disappoint anybody.’ This was one time in his life he recalls not having a strong mentor nearby. ‘I think the environment was my mentor. I had to sink or swim – I was clinging on to the edges, but I hung on.’
The gutsy Pienaar graduated to the senior ranks where he continued what gurus these days might call a ‘portfolio’ lifestyle. The bulky blindside flanker joined what was still the Transvaal team, now known simply as the Lions, and attacked the challenge with his signature vim. ‘In 1993 we won everything,’ he says. ‘We even beat the Auckland Blues in the final of the Super 10 [SuperRugby today] when their side was full of All Blacks.’ Pienaar also led his men to the domestic Currie Cap and made his debut for the Springboks.
All the while he was building a business, like many of his contemporaries. ‘Remember the sport was still amateur back then,’ he points out. ‘Guys were either studying for a degree or had a degree and ran a business. So they brought a different set of skills to the game of rugby. They could easily debate things and come up with solutions. Rugby was fun for us.’ Pienaar’s day job was building a successful trading and property business in Midrand. ‘These days sport is a business, so things are totally different.’ That unforgettable World Cup victory in 1995 changed that and more. In the tournament pundits mark as the turning point towards full professionalism in rugby – a movement the Bok skipper championed – Pienaar seemed to drag both a team of underdogs and an equally troubled nation through wall after wall to conquer the unbeatable All Blacks. Be it the ill discipline of the pool match against minnows Canada or the torrential rains that nearly eliminated the home team in the semi-final versus France, trouble seemed to follow the men in green and gold. But the man they called Cappy, who wore the famous number 6 jersey, was used to trouble both on and off the pitch, and overcame both varieties the same way: head down, heart on sleeve, fighting to the finish. Pienaar raising the Webb Ellis trophy with Madiba by his side was his, and the country’s, reward. Still, Pienaar talks sparingly about his relationship with the iconic freedom fighter. ‘I’m a bit selfish with it,’ he admits. ‘I don’t like to talk about it too much in case it loses its, what do I call it, specialness. I cannot explain what the man means to me.’
Cappy is far more open about the rugby coach who guided him both at Transvaal and through the Springbok triumph in 1995. While grateful to all the coaches who helped mould him, it’s the one he called Coach, Kitch Christie, who Pienaar credits as his most influential mentor. Unlike your typical captain-coach relationship, this connection was more about life than winning matches. ‘He always made me a captain first and a player second,’ maintains Pienaar.
One story more than any other bears this out. It was after that glittering spell covering 1993 and 1994 when Pienaar’s teams had swept opposition aside like a marauding army. He was appropriately named international player of the year by Rugby World magazine and the toast of aficionados everywhere. Only one man wasn’t singing his praises. ‘Kitch sat me down and told me it had been my worst year as captain,’ recounts Pienaar poignantly. ‘He told me there had been three games we’d lost because I hadn’t made the right decisions – even the Super 10 pool match against Queensland in which I was man of the match. Coach was such a moral compass. Whenever you started thinking you were good, he would bring you back down to earth.’ A less salubrious dumping came in 1996 when the new national coach, André Markgraaf, dropped an out-of-form Pienaar ahead of a Springbok tour to Argentina, France and Wales. The captain accepted an offer to play for Saracens in London and moved there with his wife, Nerine, that December.
Far from the lucrative cool-down one might expect in the twilight of a record-breaking career, Pienaar took the chance to prove his abilities. He arrived at a team that trained on a public park in north London, and, by the 1997- 98 season, had led them to their first piece of major silverware since their establishment more than 120 years earlier: the Tetley’s Bitter Cup. The South African would also become the club’s first ever player-captain and remains a member of their board to this day.
The courageous leader eventually hung up his boots and skipper’s armband in 2000. He stayed on at Saracens as coach for a time, but appears to have had no conflict about returning to his homeland. ‘I came back for three reasons,’ he states assuredly. ‘The lifestyle, my family and the education. You look at the schools here in the Western Cape: Bishops, Rondebosch, Paul Roos, Paarl Boys… They’re phenomenal – outdoors and with academics. That upbringing is what I wanted for my kids. In the UK, it’s predominantly academics, unless you send them to boarding school.’ The bond Pienaar shares with his boys, Jean and Stephane, is visible whenever the proud dad mentions his teenage sons.
Back home Pienaar was head-hunted by financial services giant FirstRand to look after FNB sponsorship and marketing, later becoming provincial chairman of the Western Cape. He then followed his passion and started a sport, entertainment and media business, in which FirstRand has a stake. He’s also branched into other ventures, including a branding and logistics business, a below-theline marketing and activation business, and a sportswear manufacturing business called No Limits, launched just this year.
Chief among his expansive record of charitable work is the MAD (Make a Difference) Foundation. Inspired by the strength Christie had shown him while fending off cancer for years, and convinced only education would repair South Africa, he founded the organisation in 2003. Still with its founding chairman heavily involved, MAD has supported more than 2 000 young South Africans through its broad education programmes.
Perhaps his most famous accomplishment of late has been his Varsity Sport venture, which manages the popular Varsity Cup. Starting with rugby and now spreading to other codes, this is the platform that is steadily upgrading university sport in South Africa. Founded in 2008, it has already helped groom senior stars such as Eben Etzebeth, JJ Engelbrecht and Juan de Jongh, and has come to occupy student life on Monday evenings during the season. Next up could even be a television channel solely dedicated to varsity sport.
Pienaar’s knack for creative business thinking comes through firmly in his summary of the strategy. ‘It’s really all about building brands and unlocking value,’ he explains. ‘Just look at the college sports system in the States. That is a really profitable business and ours is based very closely on their model. People think students don’t have money, but they do – it’s just that it might not be their own. The discretionary spend in the student market in South Africa is a good R40 billion, and they do it arbitrarily. They also have the biggest potential value, the longest value to any brand. They go from students to being professionals, so you want to engage them early.’ The proof lies in statistics like the 450 000 people who watch the Varsity Cup live in a season.
While the sporting warhorse and captain of industry hasn’t slowed down much, most will agree he’s earned the right to relish the things he loves most. Pienaar still puts in a full day at the office, running his various business interests, but is sure to go out walking with Nerine in the mornings. ‘We’re carving out a lot of family time,’ he explains. ‘Dinner at home, some music and maybe a Scotch. On weekends we’re usually up at 5am to travel somewhere like Elgin for the boys’ rowing. There’s no excuse not to find family time.’ And those who most closely resemble family rarely feel left out either. For the gregarious Pienaar, strong personal relationships have been a golden thread. ‘Meeting the people that I have has been a great privilege,’ he reflects. ‘I’ve met incredibly smart people. But a meeting is not a fair reflection of who someone is. It’s easy to put the best foot forward, the right things are said and people can gush. I’ve seen it in Hollywood, where everybody is great and fantastic and it’s “Oh, you look so good”. That’s very plastic. It’s when you get to know people well that they can really impress you. I’ve been lucky to meet these people.’ He mentions tea with Nelson Mandela in 1994, but abides by his rule of keeping the heart of that relationship just for him and Madiba.
Pienaar’s choices for ‘me time’ might sound unlikely ones for a man regarded by many – certainly his opponents on the rugby park and in the boardroom – as a hard man. ‘I just love music,’ he almost sings. ‘Music with a cigar and maybe a glass of vino. I listen to a range of genres, but it’s always about the poets. I have to be able to listen to the lyrics. I enjoy wise musicians who speak the truth and raise questions that excite me.’ In fact, music had a keystone role in Pienaar’s captaincy of the Springboks. One song in particular, Roger Whittaker’s ‘I don’t believe in if anymore’, illustrates this role. ‘I was sitting with the players one day and they kept asking me “What if?” questions,’ he begins. ‘What if I drop the ball? What if I miss a tackle? What if we lose?’ The uncertainty cannot have sat well with this most assured of men. But he appears to have had the ideal answer. ‘I turned round and said, What if we don’t take our chances? What if we don’t give our all?’ To hammer home the point, he started playing the Whittaker ballad on the team bus en route to matches: ‘And if you do it often lad; And if you do it right; You’ll be a hero overnight; You’ll save your country from her plight’.
Given half a chance he’ll even rattle off his favourite painters and sculptors. ‘I’m a great fan of Angus Taylor,’ he says. ‘He’s a friend and just incredible. John Meyer and Sam Nhlengethwa are also superb. We have such magnificent artists in South Africa – you just need to look at the prices they’re fetching overseas.’
The skills, the connections, the experience and so much more make Francois Pienaar a unique vestige of our past and a source of valuable insights on the South Africa of tomorrow. ‘In 1995, what was important for us as a nation was to reconcile and to celebrate. I hear that every day. I might be sitting next to a guy on a plane and he’ll say to me, “My captain, I remember watching that final on TV in a township,” and my heart goes doof-doof-doof. The 2010 Soccer World Cup was for us to show the world that we’re champions. We showed them that we could host this tournament, despite the naysayers and bad press.’
He turns to the future. ‘We’ll be at a crossroads for a while yet. In the end, it’s about leadership. We’ve got phenomenal resources, human capital, mineral capital. We’re the gateway to the growing market of Africa, which is where everyone wants to be right now. So, I’m very positive about the future of South Africa – with the footnote: if we have the right leadership. If we do, who’s going to stop this success story? It’s just going to get better and better.’