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Rugby match in Soweto uplifts South Africa

Whites and blacks celebrate together in prelude to World Cup.

Tens of thousands of Afrikaner rugby supporters visited Soweto for the first time after Pretoria's Blue Bulls decided to relocate a major game to the black township. (Nicolas Brulliard/GlobalPost)

SOWETO, South Africa – Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela used rugby to convince South Africa's white minority to give a chance to the country's fledgling democracy, the sport has once again allowed the nation to reach another milestone in its quest for a nonracial society.

Tens of thousands of white Afrikaners descended on Soweto over the weekend to follow the Blue Bulls, the Pretoria rugby team with a fanatical following that decided to relocate a crucial home game to the heart of South Africa’s most populous black township.

FIFA, the international soccer governing body, forced the move as the Bulls’ stadium — Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria — is one of 10 stadiums to be used for the upcoming soccer World Cup, and FIFA wants to preserve its pitch in the weeks leading to the month-long tournament. But the fact that the Bulls’ leadership picked Soweto’s iconic Orlando Stadium as a replacement carries a symbolism that wasn’t lost on anyone.

“It is one of those special South African moments that proves we are better off for having one another, and that despite the challenges we face, our society is on the right track,” Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu told local reporters ahead of the game.

Soweto, a sprawling township located southwest of Johannesburg, played a major role in the struggle against apartheid, the racist, segregationist policies engineered by the Afrikaner minority. The Freedom Charter, a document setting a nonracial South Africa as the ultimate goal of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, was signed here in 1955. It was also here that Mandela resided for 15 years before going underground, and where a brutally repressed student uprising in 1976 provided one of the strongest challenges to the oppressive regime.

Before 1994, the only whites to venture into Soweto were police officers patrolling the streets in armored vehicles. Even now, virtually none of Soweto’s more than 1 million residents is white, and the rare white faces there are those of foreign tourists visiting the township’s historic sites.

Although progress has been made to reduce racial separation in South Africa, blacks and whites largely keep to themselves and distrust of the other is common. So it took many Bulls fans by surprise to see the warm welcome reserved for them by the Soweto residents who lined the streets leading to the stadium.

Everywhere one looked, visitors and locals snapped pictures of each other, and residents shouted their support in Afrikaans, the Bulls’ supporters’ preferred language.