Special to The History Place
“Invictus” means “unconquered.” The poem of that name, by 19th century Scotsman William Ernest Hensley, is said to be Nelson Mandela’s favorite. As the title of Clint Eastwood’s new film, which opened last week in the U.S., the word has a dual significance. Mandela, played to perfection by Morgan Freeman, claims that it helped carry him through his 27 years of incarceration at the hands of the Apartheid. When Mandela writes out the verses and gives them to Springbok team captain Francois Pienaar – another perfect portrayal, this by Matt Damon – they become the symbol and inspiration for the South African national rugby team’s unlikely triumph in the 1995 Rugby League World Cup.
Whatever its ultimate outcome, the ’95 contest made history from the first whistle. Because of Apartheid, South Africa had been banned from the championship event, which occurred every four years. With the end of Apartheid and the election of Mandela to the presidency, the Springboks were allowed back into the league. This was only the third Rugby World Cup, and only the first in which all the games were played in one nation – South Africa.
Despite having rooted for any team that played the ‘Boks while he was incarcerated on Robben Island, Mandela persuades the national sports organization to reverse its ruling and retain the name and colors of the team beloved by the nation’s Boors. He becomes the team’s biggest fan, learns the names of all the players, and inspires its captain to lead his teammates to unanticipated heights. True to the facts, Eastwood’s Mandela appears in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium garbed in the ‘Bok’s green and gold and sporting Pienaar’s number six on his back.
Eastwood, who will be 80 next May, is at the height of his artistic talents. Here he spins a stirring tale of courage and compassion. Tackling the challenge of depicting the reconciliation through which Mandela was determined to lead his 43 million countrymen and women, the director weaves a subplot through his story: when the newly inaugurated Mandela is informed that his bodyguard needs reinforcing, he dragoons a foursome of Afrikaner security agents, who had guarded his predecessor, De Klerk.
Mandela gambles his political capital on a wager that the Springboks, all white save one, can help him realize his Rainbow Coalition. He gambles his life on the bet that his mixed-race security squad will cooperate and keep him safe. Both rolls of the dice were fraught with hazard.
But, then, here is a man whose favorite poem asserts, “In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced or cried aloud; Under the bludgeonings of chance, My head is bloody but unbow’d.”
A measure of Eastwood’s artistry is that, despite our knowing (or easily learning) the outcome of the ’95 world cup, we are on the edges of our seats, as the ‘Boks take on Australia, West Samoa, France, and finally, the seemingly invincible New Zealand ‘All Blacks.’
In addition to the satisfying symbolism of the Springbok’s triumph, standing as it does for the nation-building to which Mandela devoted his presidency, the team’s tenacity is compelling, too, because the bruised and bloodied gladiators were all amateurs with day jobs. Two months after the World Cup was on the South African sideboard, the International Rugby Football Board turned the sport professional.
Of course, one World Cup win does not a nation make. The challenges faced by Mandela – racism, poverty, violence – remain with South Africa, and America, and Europe, down to this day. To borrow the favorite cliché of the ubiquitous sportscaster in the film, “I for one” never thought Apartheid would be eliminated in South Africa without a bloody race war. As Damon/Pienaar wonders aloud, how could a man who was caged for nearly 30 years emerge from his tiny cell and forgive his captors?
The answer, perhaps, is that it took a man who believes, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.