Invictus: On Mandela and the South African Potential

How can one man unify a nation torn apart for decades by race and economics? Clint Eastwood’s 2009 Hollywood film Invictus recounts newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela’s journey to unite his country through the national rugby team. In the wake of the apartheid, Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, captain of South Africa’s nearly all-Afrikaans rugby team, joined together to achieve the impossible. Despite the racial, economic, and linguistic divides present throughout South Africa, Mandela fully believed in the unifying capabilities of sport. Though unable to fully conceive the lasting issue of racial divide, Invictus testifies to the virtues core to South Africa’s emergence from the apartheid era: forgiveness, reconciliation, and spirituality.

Invictus juxtaposes racism with forgiveness and reconciliation throughout the film. The film depicted racism from the onset as viewed in the scene comparing two groups of young men: one of white youths playing rugby and another of black youths playing soccer. In another scene, upon seeing Mandela speed by, the blacks begin to cheer while the whites remain silent. Their silence only broken by an utterance, “that terrorist”, from their coach.[1] The incongruity of the two reactions evinces the unquestionable mistrust between the two ethnic groups, which has generationally permeated through South African culture. The film continuously points to this mistrust by including even newspaper headlines that question Mandela’s ability to run a country after winning the election in 1994.[2] Hand-picked by Mandela to star as himself in the film, Morgan Freeman captures Mandela’s charm and serene confidence; thus, successfully portraying the President’s journey of leading a nation from conflict to peace.[3] In one scene, Mandela advises blacks, “Take your guns, your knives and your [machetes] and throw them into the sea.[4] Replicating his 1990 address to a massive rally in Durban,[5] the film immortalizes Mandela’s words to reflect his sacrificing character. For instance, Mandela’s leadership and allegiance with the national rugby team even unified his racially divided personal staff. Mandela depicts his aptitude for leadership via his memorization of every rugby player’s name of the national Springboks team. As the team members venture to endorse rugby among black youth under Mandela’s direction, they develop a closer bonds amongst each other. Such trust allowed the Springboks to overcome the globally-favoured New Zealand “All-Blacks” team and resulted in South Africa winning the 1995 World Cup. The direction of the film succeeds in capturing these moments, ending with a triumphant Mandela whose faith has resulted in a mended, “healing” nation.

While most articles have detailed the final championship game and even Mandela’s support for the team, this film furthers the story to include the impact of willingness and kindness on not just athletes and political leaders, but also on the youth. Indeed, the many scenes portraying the youth may serve as another message in the film, one that helps people realize the vitality of the next generation. Invictus not only recounts history but also notes how actions of leaders today can influence future generations. If groups continue to spread hate and racism as the white coach had in the beginning of the film, the apartheid legacy of racial separation would have persisted. On the other hand, if both whites and blacks work harmoniously to attack current divides in all social and political spheres, such as the lack of representation of black youth in rugby, we can expect a much more harmonious, brighter future.

The narrative of the film suggests that South Africa had been fully unified following the 1995 World Cup. For instance, Mandela walks onto the field at the World Cup final to support the mostly white South African team and the crowd cheers wildly. The moments of the final win paint a portrait of blacks and whites finally unifying as one. I agree that this moment embodied unprecedented historical significance, especially in twentieth century South Africa, and should in fact continue to represent a symbol of unity. Still, I cannot help but feel that the average member of the audience would accept the film’s ending portrayal of South Africa as truth.  Most viewers probably believe that the apartheid has completely ended in South Africa; thus, racism and inequality are no longer prevalent. I can attest that I shared this belief before taking courses on South Africa in college.

Yet despite South Africa’s revolutionary moments of unification and indeed its revolutionary constitution, the region remains plagued by its history and apartheid legacy. For instance, unemployment continues to affect three-fifths of South Africa,[6] the education system continues to rank as one of the worst globally,[7] and non-Whites form 80% of the nation that continues to struggle the most with inequality and poverty.[8] These statistics range from 2012 to just one year ago. The film released in 2009. The game took place in 1995. This means that in over a decade, between the time of the game and the movie, these issues of race and economics still heavily impacted South African life. Thereby, Invictus should have better addressed the continuing nature of the divide to reveal more than just one moment in history and illuminate contemporary concerns. The film should have suggested, instead, that the game served as an optimistic symbol at the time and as a reminder of potential to today’s population.

Though not as prominent as racism, the theme of spirituality continually reappears in Invictus. One scene in the film presents a Bible verse written on a church wall and two nearby women, a charity worker and her assistant, hand out clothing to impoverished youths while blessing them. Post-apartheid, many churches in South Africa coalesced under the African National Congress (ANC)’s position of nation building.[9] Although the role of the church would shift over the next years from political alignment with the ANC to a struggling withdrawal, the film depicts a moment when the church still had a politically-recognized, democratic contribution to South Africans.[10] Moreover, the Springboks’ captain, Pienaar, insists on his teammates’ need of God’s blessing when some feel reluctant to sing “black” South Africa’s national anthem.[11] In this way, the film shows how sport not only brings people together physically but also emotionally though religious spirituality.

The Hollywood drama commemorates individual spirituality as much as the religious one. Mandela later states, “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”[12] Here, Mandela reminds us of every person’s individuality, a uniqueness that calls for celebration, and implies an intuitive relationship with not just the Christian god but one’s own god, one’s own universal spirit. The very ability for Mandela to unite South Africans through rugby, as the film presents, testifies to the power of this very individual spirit to engender change and unity within a nation. The Springboks before the 1995 World Cup embodied white South Africanism, a post-apartheid legacy to many, with blacks attempting to tear it down. Mandela embraces the Springboks and realizes the potential for a politically savvy allegiance through sport, which  he accomplishes with Pienaar. Resultantly, Invictus beautifully exhibits this racial transition through not only concentrating on Mandela’s role but also focusing on Pienaar’s development and acceptance, as seen when he encourages his reluctant team to sing the black national anthem.

While the film could have better demonstrated the modern impact of Mandela and the Springbok’s unity and its influence on the continuing racial struggles in South Africa, Invictus recounts an incredible story based on true events and adeptly selects scenes that showcase the racial divide and the progression towards understanding and reconciliation. Additionally, the movie does not lose sight of religious and personal spirituality. More than anything, as South Africa remains a branched society, the film contributes a promise of hope and potential to a still healing nation.

 

 

[1] Peckham, Anthony, and John Carlin. Invictus. Performance by Morgan Freeman, et al., Warner Bros., 2011.

[2] A newspaper in the film writes, “He won the election but can he run a country?” which Mandela refers to as a legitimate question. Invictus.

[3] “The Real Story Of ‘Invictus’.” Inside Edition, Inside Edition Inc., 6 Dec. 2013.

[4] Invictus

[5] Kraft, Scott. “End War Now, Mandela Tells Blacks : South Africa: At a Mass Rally, the ANC Leader Calls on Factions to Throw Away Their Weapons.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 26 Feb. 1990.

[6] Mahajan, Sandeep. Economics of South African Townships, Special Focus on Diepsloot. World Bank Group, 2014, pp. 8.

[7] The Economist. “South Africa Has One of the World’s Worst Education Systems.” The Economist, The Economist Group Limited, 7 Jan. 2017

[8] Gradin, C. “Race, Poverty and Deprivation in South Africa.” Journal of African Economies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 187.

[9] Bompani, Barbara. “â€Mandela Mania: Mainline Churches in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 6, 2006, pp. 1138.

[10] Kuperus, T. “The Political Role and Democratic Contribution of Churches in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 53, no. 2, 2011, pp. 280-285.

[11] Invictus.

[12] Ibid.

References

Bompani, Barbara. “â€Mandela Mania: Mainline Churches in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 6, 2006, pp. 1137–1149., doi:10.1080/01436590600842449.

Gradin, C. “Race, Poverty and Deprivation in South Africa.” Journal of African Economies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 187–238., doi:10.1093/jae/ejs019.

Kraft, Scott. “End War Now, Mandela Tells Blacks : South Africa: At a Mass Rally, the ANC Leader Calls on Factions to Throw Away Their Weapons.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 26 Feb. 1990, http://www.articles.latimes.com/1990-02-26/news/mn-1165_1_south-africa.

Kuperus, T. “The Political Role and Democratic Contribution of Churches in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 53, no. 2, 2011, pp. 278–306., doi:10.1093/jcs/csr030.

Mahajan, Sandeep. Economics of South African Townships, Special Focus on Diepsloot. World Bank Group, 2014.

Peckham, Anthony, and John Carlin. Invictus. Performance by Morgan Freeman, et al., Warner Bros., 2011. The Economist. “South Africa Has One of the World’s Worst Education Systems.” The

Economist, The Economist Group Limited, 7 Jan. 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21713858-why-it-bottom-class-south-africa-has-one-worlds-worst-education.

“The Real Story Of ‘Invictus’.” Inside Edition, Inside Edition Inc., 6 Dec. 2013, http://www.insideedition.com/headlines/7447-the-real-story-of-invictus.

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