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Invictus (December 11, 2009)

We sometimes forget how recent was South Africa’s transformation.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela, who had spent twenty-seven years as a political  prisoner, became President of South Africa, and presided over that country’s transition from tyranny to democracy. Tensions were high upon his election. The majority black population still seethed over the brutal repression they had endured under apartheid. A resentful white minority feared a paroxysm of revenge. A civil war seemed imminent

That South Africa was able to avoid that fate; that Mandela could move blacks and whites toward reconciliation and healing, still seems miraculous. How did he pull it off?

The unlikely answer, according to Clint Eastwood’s stirring new film, Invictus, was through a rugby team. Mandela (played to perfection by Morgan Freeman) shrewdly transformed South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, from a symbol of the repressive white regime into a vehicle of national unity. Under the banner, ‘One Team, One Country,’ the Springboks made an improbable march to the Rugby World Cup Finals in 1995. The final match became, in the words of John Carlin, the journalist whose book inspired this film, “The game that made a nation.”  Here’s how the film matches up with the historical facts.

Q. The film says that before 1994, blacks in South Africa despised the national rugby team. Why?
A. Because blacks saw rugby as a white sport, one followed with almost religious fervor by the Afrikaners, South Africa’s white minority. Springbok fans often belted out racist fight songs as they cheered on their team. During the long years of the apartheid regime, the three most hated symbols of white oppression were the white national anthem, the national flag, and the Springboks rugby team.

 Q. Why then did Mandela latch on to the Springboks to foster national unity?
A. Because white Afrikaners loved it so, Mandela knew he could win points by allowing them to keep their beloved team in the face of many calls to disband it altogether, or at the very least to change its name. But reconciliation had to go both ways. So Mandela met with Francois Pienaar, the Springbok’s captain, to ensure that the team reciprocated by shedding their racist patina and truly becoming a team for the entire nation.

Q.  In the film, Matt Damon plays Pienaar as a decent, upstanding guy.  Was he that conciliatory towards Mandela?
A. He was, and Damon captures the awe and respect Pienaar had for Mandela and his eagerness to work with his President towards national unity. What Damon can’t quite capture is the sheer heft of the man. Rugby has all the bone-crushing, head-smashing ferocity of football, but without the pads and helmets. Professional rugby players tend toward the massive. The real Francois Pienaar stands  6 ft. 4 inches, and weighs 240 lbs, and over his career has broken his nose fourteen times and gotten some 400 stitches to his face. In interviews, Damon laughs about the physical differences.  On meeting Pienaar, Damon recounts gazing up at him, and saying, “I look much bigger on screen.”

Q. Did whites working in the presidential offices all prepare to leave after Mandela’s election?
A. They did, assuming Mandela wouldn’t want them to stay. But as in the film, Mandela asked to meet with all of them, and to their great surprise, spoke to them in Afrikaans, the Afrikaner native tongue, and expressed his wish that they would stay on to assist his government. Every single one of them stayed.

The episode illustrates the secret of Mandela’s success. Met with suspicion and resentment by Afrikaners, he reached out with warmth and sincerity, disarming and charming them, and thus eventually winning them over to his point of view. It wasn’t enough to end apartheid, he said once. He needed to inspire whites to want to kill it themselves.

Q.  The film shows the rugby team initially refusing to sing the new national anthem. True?
A. Not at all.  The team was eager to cooperate with Mandela, and enthusiastically practiced ‘Nkosi Sikelele,’ the former black liberation anthem, which now shared national anthem status with the old Afrikaner anthem, ‘Die Stem.’ (In 1997, a new hybrid anthem was created from the two.) 

Q. Did the Springboks visit poor black neighborhoods during the World Cup competition?
A. They did, and South African TV cameras broadcast it to the nation. The unfamiliar sight of huge white guys playing rugby with eager black children touched the hearts of many South Africans.

Q. Did the rugby team take a field trip to Mandela's former prison during the World Cup tour?
A. I was skeptical about this episode in the film, but turns out it did take place. Two days after the Springbok's first World Cup victory, their manager, Morne du Plessis,  arranged for the team to visit the infamous Robbins Island prison, and see the tiny cell where Mandela had spent years of his life. Du Plessis said the visit was to deepen the team's connection with Mandela, and draw inspiration from the man's strength and fortitude. It worked, and players later spoke movingly about the trip.

Q. So, what are the rules for scoring points in rugby, anyway?
A. Heck if I know. Fortunately, you can be as clueless as I am to the rules and still thrill to this film.

Q. No spoilers, but was the final match depicted accurately?
A. Yep. From Mandela’s reception in the stadium, to the final score and the reaction, Eastwood’s film got the details right. Including, by the way, the unexpected (and momentarily terrifying) flyover before the game by a South African Airlines jet.  

Q. Where can I find more information?
A. Read John Carlin’s wonderful book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films.

Southtown Star 12/20/09

Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar

The real Mandela and Pienaar

Morgan Freeman shines as the South African President.

© 2004 History in the Movies