CAPE TOWN, South Africa — “Invictus,” the new film about South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win, shows how Nelson Mandela strategically used the sports tournament to bridge the country's bitter racial divide.
If Americans know little about soccer, they know less about rugby. Still, Hollywood saw the essential human drama at play. Clint Eastwood directs Morgan Freeman as South Africa President Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as rugby captain Francois Pienaar in an adaptation of the book by John Carlin.
“In the confused global times that we live in, an era of chaos and confusion, we don’t really have particularly impressive leaders. There’s a hunger for that kind of leadership,” Carlin told GlobalPost, recapping interviews with Mandela and Eastwood. “The movie feeds that hunger a bit.”
"Invictus" is a sports movie, to be sure. Scrums, tackles and tries dominate the second half. But the film is not so much the story of an underdog team winning a key match in overtime as it is a look at how Mandela had strategically planned for the iconic moment.
Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa's majority rule democracy was still finding its feet. That is why black and white South Africans together rejoiced at the victory of their Springbok team at the Rugby World Cup. Even more than South Africa's dramatic win, hearts leapt at the sight of Mandela striding onto the field wearing the green and gold Sprinbok jersey to stand arm in arm with rugby captain Pienaar. Fifteen years later South Africans still talk about it as a thrilling unifying event.
But Carlin didn’t realize “how conscious and deliberate” Mandela was in using sport as political strategy until he interviewed the former president.
Throughout his 27 years in prison, Mandela’s guards were Afrikaners. Learning their culture — their language, their habits, and most of all, the game they revered with all the faith of a congregation — was part of Mandela's long-term strategy toward reconciliation.
Mandela chatted about rugby players and matches with everybody from his cell keepers to the head of intelligence and he knew this facilitated deeper bonds than if he discussed politics.
“It took extraordinary political imagination” to see South Africa's long-term possibilities, says Carlin. Mandela understood that to ensure a peaceful transition to majority rule he had to win cooperation and support from the powerful minority.
“My idea was to ensure that we got the support of Afrikaners, because — as I kept reminding people — rugby, as far as Afrikaners are concerned, is a religion,” said Mandela to Carlin.
The black majority often saw rugby and its players in symbolic terms: A violent game played by those who enforced brutal apartheid law.
Many white South Africans fervently believed they had the world's greatest rugby team and they were bitterly frustrated by international sanctions which prevented them from proving it. In 1992 — two years before the first majority-rule vote — the ANC dropped its insistence on the international sports ban as a powerful negotiation tactic.
South Africa quickly sought and won the right to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The country already had the rugby stadiums in place and the infrastructure to host the medium-sized crowds.
Surprisingly, black South Africans showed a new interest in rugby. The Sowetan newspaper popularized a new Zulu name for the Springbok team, “AmaBokoBoko.” In townships, black spectators watched their first rugby matches on television and heard the mostly-white team singing the new national anthem and they saw Mandela wearing the once-hated green-and-gold jersey. Not only had Mandela allowed the Afrikaners to keep their symbolic shirt, he reappropriated it for all South Africans.
“However much Mandela thought about it, he, too, was surprised by the enormity of it all,” says Carlin. “It exceeded his expectations of what it might offer.”
For the red carpet event in Los Angeles, Carlin sat next to Mandela’s daughter Zindzi, who he says was completely blown away by Freeman’s performance. Pienaar also attended with his wife, who told Carlin that she’d “never seen him so emotional.”
To a large extent South Africa's success in hosting the 1995 rugby event was crucial in paving the way for the country to win the right to hold the 2010 soccer World Cup, the world's biggest sports tournament. Just last week the international soccer body, FIFA, held an event that brought Charlize Theron — herself an Afrikaner — and David Beckham to Cape Town for the televised draw, which determined which teams will play which in the initial rounds. It was a must-see for global soccer fans, attracting throngs of foreign journalists, and raising South Africa’s visibility.
While this might seem like a brilliantly masterminded release date for "Invictus," nobody planned it that way. When Carlin mentioned the serendipitous timing to a Warner Brothers executive, the American didn't even know the draw was taking place at all.
“Invictus” hasn’t quite had the buzz here that other blockbusters have had this season. “Twilight: New Moon” and “This is It” were more popular in terms of pre-sales. With its sometimes heavy-handed symbolism, "Invictus" is obviously geared toward an international audience that isn’t intimately familiar with the players.
South Africans seem particularly keen to dissect the accents of the foreign actors, reflecting a bittersweet attitude about Hollywood’s interest in their country. On the one hand, there’s pride and joy in reliving the drama of their historic moment and sharing it with the world. On the other is frustration that South African actors don’t star in big-budget films.
Fifteen years into democracy, the possibility of collapse into civil war is no longer a concern. But the sense of boundless possibility that the nation felt upon winning the World Cup isn’t reality either.
“I hope that seeing this movie will remind [South Africans] of what’s best in this country,” says Carlin. “What’s best in this country is what’s best in the human race. This commemorates a moment that leaves a phenomenal example to everyone, always.”