You need more than rugby to bury Apartheid

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus reproduces the euphoria of South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup win, and many of its illusions too.

Sharmini Brookes

Topics Culture Sport

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‘One Team, One Country.’ The team was the Springboks; the country was South Africa. The slogan was the brainwave of Edward Griffiths, who was CEO of the South African rugby union and communications director of the South Africa rugby team during the 1995 World Cup.

On 24 June 1995, 43million South Africans came together to watch the Springboks beat the New Zealand All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Invictus, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood and based on John Carlin’s book Playing The Enemy, celebrates this feat as the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela’s campaign to forge a new, democratic South Africa. Non-South Africans may wonder: why rugby?

For South Africans, rugby is a big deal. It was the sport of the hated ruling Afrikaners and as much an icon of Apartheid as the orange-white-blue flag of the old regime or its national anthem ‘Die Stem’. No black person would be associated with the sport on principle. Football was the game of black South Africa, while Indians, like my family, played cricket. Everyone (including all the prisoners incarcerated with Mandela on Robben Island) always supported the away-team against South Africa. My mother still supports England against South Africa – old habits die hard.

As much as rugby was hated by the black majority, it inspired a religious fervour in the Afrikaners. They had suffered under the sports boycott that prevented South Africa from competing internationally in the one sport it excelled at. Mandela’s eureka moment was to recognise that if he could win the hearts and minds of the Afrikaners through their one great passion, rugby, then governing the new South Africa would be a great deal easier. With the 1995 Rugby World Cup being held in South Africa, Mandela saw an ideal opportunity to unite the country. But winning over the black masses to his PR campaign was not going to be easy.

The campaign around the Rugby World Cup reflected the realpolitik of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). During the struggle to overthrow Apartheid, the ANC had allied itself with the Communist Party (SACP) – and the SACP’s rhetoric was far more effective at mobilising the black masses than the elitist middle-class nationalism of the ANC leadership. But in power, after the first democratic elections of 1994 following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the ANC was eager to shake off its communist and working-class allies and build new alliances with the middle classes and capitalist elites in South Africa. What better means than rugby to achieve this new coalition?

Invictus, Latin for ‘unconquered’, is the title of a short poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley. Mandela used to recite it to himself while in prison. Eastwood’s film focuses on the build-up to the World Cup final and the developing bond between Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). Damon is a convincing Afrikaner, while Freeman, who has been Oscar-nominated for his performance, is an uncanny look-a-like for Mandela. He’s so impressive that I can forgive the odd lapse in pronunciation. It doesn’t matter that he says ‘perry’ instead of ‘petty’ and ‘Springbucks’ instead of ‘Springboks’, because in every other way he is very credible.

Alongside this pivotal relationship, there are some lighter comedic moments, too, like the understandably indignant reactions of the newly appointed black bodyguards who find themselves having to work alongside those who once protected FW de Klerk’s Apartheid government. The white guards talk rugby; the blacks don’t. They are puzzled by Mandela’s newfound interest in the sport, especially when he overrides a decision by the militant government sports department to change the name of the team from the hated Springboks to the more neutral Proteas.

Why take such a stubborn stand over such a petty issue, Mandela’s secretary asks him? Mandela responds that if he can’t face up to hard decisions now, then he never will. This recognition of the difficulty of forging a new alliance underpins the worldwide respect and admiration for Mandela.

In Playing The Enemy, Carlin revealed how Mandela built up trust with his Afrikaner prison wardens and explored the ANC’s protracted negotiations with the Apartheid leaders PW Botha and later FW de Klerk. Mandela’s capacity to forgive his former enemies is a calculated recognition of what is required to bring about the peaceful transition to a democratic capitalist state. Mandela recognised that, in order to achieve his now very limited goals, he had to win over the ruling elite, since they had military and economic power and possessed the administrative know-how to help run the country. He needed unity at all costs.

As Carlin pointed out, the assassination in April 1993 of Chris Hani, black hero and potential heir to Mandela’s throne, ‘foreshadowed big trouble… the forests of black fists raised in anger, the burning barricades, the torched cars, the white riot policemen clutching their shotguns protectively to their chests’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who later presided over South Africa’s therapeutic Truth and Reconciliation Committee, pleaded for restraint. ‘Let us not allow Chris’s killers success in their nefarious purpose of getting our country to go up in flames.’

Despite Carlin’s attempt to show that Mandela himself was the prime mover in achieving a negotiated settlement, he also revealed how the post-Soviet Union global climate allowed the Apartheid leaders the freedom to consider working with the ANC and its Communist Party supporters. Alongside this, increasingly violent opposition in black townships was forcing the Apartheid government to make concessions.

It may come as a surprise to many anti-Apartheid campaigners that from 1982 onwards Mandela lived fairly comfortably in roomy accommodation in Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland of Cape Town. From 1985, while being groomed for leadership by the Apartheid government, he lived in well-appointed private premises adjoining the prison. The long walk out from Victor Verster prison was staged for effect at Mandela’s request, and the rally in Cape Town was delayed to help dampen the high spirits of the waiting crowds.

In the film, however, Mandela’s history pre-1995 is only hinted at through snapshot flashbacks.

Towards the end of the film, a Boeing 747 flies low over Johannesburg; its thunderous roar terrifying the 62,000 in the stadium waiting for the big rugby final to start. Then, when the plane’s underside with the words ‘Good Luck Bokke’ painted on it in giant black letters, become visible, terror turns to delight. Just before kick-off, Mandela walks on to the field to meet the Springboks team. ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson…’ call the crowds ecstatically, and the chants are shown reverberating in living rooms and pubs around South Africa.

I left the cinema feeling a little teary – but optimistic, too. It may be because as a South African living abroad at the time, I wasn’t there when the masses celebrated Mandela’s release; I wasn’t there when the nation queued to vote in the first democratic election; and I missed this last euphoric moment when rugby briefly united a country.

Today, it all feels like a long time ago. The assertion of ethnic rights, the desperate protests in the squatter camps and the squabble over resources in a period of global recession have seen to that. Will this year’s football World Cup achieve something similar? Or is the belief that sport can bring unity and purpose to a divided country nothing but a chimera, like the rainbow that disappears when the sun is no longer shining?

Sharmini Brookes is a South African-born freelance writer living in London.

Watch the trailer for Invictus:

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Topics Culture Sport


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