InvictusThis article was first published on © Tony Watkins, 2010

The 1995 Rugby World Cup final was an unexpectedly significant world event. It had a resonance far beyond the excitement of rugby fans because of its particular historical context. Rarely, if ever, has a sporting event been such a powerful cohesive force within a society. Invictus, based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, tells the inspiring story of how it played such a crucial part in the first year of South Africa’s new era under the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela (brilliantly played, in an Oscar-nominated performance, by Morgan Freeman) was elected as the President of South Africa in 1994. He had been released from prison in 1990, become president of the ANC and had already committed both himself and his party to the path of reconciliation. Black South Africans were overjoyed at the ANC sweeping to power in the elections, but many Afrikaners were fearful of what would happen. Mandela was insistent that it was not a time for revenge or even petty point scoring. He formed a ‘government of national unity’, with all ethnic groups represented, and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Invictus shows something of his attempts at building the ‘rainbow nation’, beginning in his own offices as he urges white civil servants to stay and work for their country. His fiercely loyal black security men are dismayed to discover that they will be working with white Special Branch officers who served the previous president. ‘The rainbow nation starts here,’ Mandela insists. ‘Reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here, too. It liberates the soul. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.’ However, he knew full well that much more was necessary to unite the bitterly divided nation.

At the time of Mandela’s inauguration, nobody could have possibly imagined that rugby could help bring this about. Almost everyone saw it as a white man’s game. Afrikaners supported the Springboks, the national team, enthusiastically, and as a result the team, and the sport generally, was hated within the townships. The opening scene of Invictus shows the sharp divide. At a school for white South Africans, boys are playing rugby on a beautifully maintained pitch when they see a car with a police escort going down the road: Mandela on his way from prison in 1990. The rugby coach tells the boys, ‘It’s that terrorist Nelson Mandela. Remember this day, boys. This is the day the country went to the dogs.’ On the other side of the road, a group of poor black boys have been playing football on a dusty patch of barren land. They, of course, are overjoyed to see their hero released.

Four years later and Mandela becomes president. Following the lifting of sporting sanctions against South Africa, the World Cup is due to be staged in a year’s time, but it promises to be an embarrassment to Afrikaners as well as an irrelevance to black South Africans. The Springboks are in a mess, suffering humiliating defeats, and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain, comes in for stinging criticism from the media. President Mandela, however, sees a golden opportunity to build bridges by actively supporting the national team.

When the ANC-run National Sports Council votes to change the name of the team to the Proteas (the national flower of South Africa) and get rid of the green and gold strip, he intervenes personally to persuade them to reverse their decision. He drives straight to their meeting and addresses them, explaining that he spent 27 years in prison studying Afrikaner prison guards. ‘They love the Boks,’ he says. ‘If we take that away we will be what they expect us to be. We must surprise them with generosity.’ It was a dangerous move, as it appeared to be a betrayal of his race. John Carlin explains:

What you have to understand is that the green shirt of the Springboks was a powerful reminder to black South Africans of apartheid. They hated that shirt because it symbolised, as much as anything else did, the tremendous indignities to which they were subjected. Mandela’s genius was to recognise that this symbol of division and hatred could be transformed into a powerful instrument of national unity.[1]

It is a mark of Mandela’s genius, but it is also a mark of his deep understanding of the vital importance of reconciliation, and its power to transform lives. His attitudes and actions are a powerful reflection of God’s grace – undeserved kindness – towards those who reject him and rebel against him. In his autobiography, Long Road to Freedom, Mandela identifies himself as a Christian,[2] and says that this explains his convictions and actions in later life. His insistence on forgiveness and generosity of spirit, though not at the expense of truth, is thoroughly, authentically Christian, and his towering example is both an inspiration and a challenge to people around the world.

The National Sports Council agrees to the President’s request, somewhat reluctantly, but there is much more to do. Director Clint Eastwood remarks:

This story takes place at a critical point in Mandela’s presidency. I think he demonstrated great wisdom in incorporating sport to reconcile his country. He knows he needs to pull everybody together, to find a way to appeal to their national pride - one thing, perhaps the only thing, they have in common at that time. He knows the white population and the black population will ultimately have to work together as a team or the country will not succeed, so he shows a lot of creativity using a sports team as a means to an end.

His next move is to invite Francois Pienaar for tea. He quickly wins the rugby captain’s respect and galvanises him to inspire his team to achieve greater things. Mandela asks Peinaar, ‘How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?’ He mentions that, while he was in prison, he was inspired by a poem, though he doesn’t tell Pienaar what it was. Soon afterwards, the Springboks players are dismayed to hear that they are to do rugby coaching in the townships as part of the PR for the World Cup. Pienaar refuses to challenge the order, however. ‘We’ve become more than a rugby team and we’d better get used to it,’ he insists. It is a hugely successful move, with children in the townships responding enthusiastically and the players becoming inspired by the reactions. Matt Damon comments:

Mandela basically asks him to exceed his country’s expectations and his own expectations and win the World Cup. It’s an enormous request, but Francois knows that it’s actually bigger than any rugby match. And along the way, the entire team realise they have become an important instrument in bringing their country together.

By the time the Rugby World Cup starts, President Mandela has positioned himself as the Springboks’ number one fan, and the slogan ‘One team, one country’ seems to be  becoming a reality. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham says:

Mandela realised he had a perfect opportunity to address the part of the electorate that had not voted for him . . . that, in truth, feared him. White South Africans followed the Springboks religiously, so to use the forum of the World Cup was brilliant. But it wasn’t just a game; it was the fact that Mandela embraced a team that black South Africans hated and almost by force of will dragged all of the people into following them.

The Boks’ extraordinary, and completely unexpected, performance in the tournament is in itself an inspiring story of an underdog triumphing against the odds. But because of Mandela’s investment of energy into the team and how it is perceived in South Africa as a whole, the final becomes a defining moment for the nation. Unfortunately, this is the point at which the film loses its way somewhat, particularly for anyone who knows what happened in the final when the Springboks faced the apparently invincible New Zealand All Blacks. Eastwood is evidently attempting to create the feeling of the game and to enable viewers to feel something of the tension of a thrilling match which went into extra time. But it dominates the last third of the film, and the match is stretched out far beyond what is necessary. It doesn’t help that much of it is filmed in emotionally overwrought slow motion and with frequent cutaways to scenes of black and white South Africans uniting in their support for the team. It’s a great shame that such an inspiring true story should be weakened at the end by sentimentality and a rose-tinted vision of a divided nation made whole by sporting heroism and the shrewd political manoeuvrings of a enormously gracious man. Yes, it was a watershed moment for the rainbow nation, but it wasn’t the end of the story. The Government of National Unity collapsed just weeks later, and it seemed that South Africa was about to plunge into chaos. The country has made real progress, but Mandela and his successors have struggled and failed to eradicate the violence that stills tears out its heart.

Nevertheless, the story which Invictus tells is an important and a moving one with valuable lessons for all of us from the conduct of these two men. Francois Pienaar is a great example of commitment and dedication to being the best it is possible to be. Nelson Mandela is not a saint and is far from perfect, as he is ready to admit, but he has arguably been the most significant example of reconciliation, forgiveness and grace in the modern world. Morgan Freeman doesn’t just capture Mandela’s voice and posture, he conveys the warmth and generosity of a man who accepts and values everybody, regardless of their status, wealth or the colour of their skin. But what is most inspiring about Mandela is his willingness to be generous even to those who were once his enemies. He lives out the instructions of the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome: ‘Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them,’ (Romans 12:14). What makes that possible is not force of will, or a pragmatic evaluation of what results it might bring, but a recognition that every human being is a sinner before God, deserving only judgement but being offered forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Mandela’s claim to be a Christian is a claim to have experienced this grace, and a commitment to the same grace working through him. It is ironic, therefore, that the poem which inspired Mandela, which he passes on to Pienaar, and which gives the film its title, celebrates being ‘captain of my soul’, because Mandela’s Christian profession means that the captain of his soul is really Jesus Christ.

[1] This and other unattributed quotations come from the film production notes, or from the film itself.

[2] Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, London, Abacus, 1995, p.620.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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