It is hard to believe that has been twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released from his long imprisonment on Robben Island, an event that would transform the nation of South Africa. Not too long afterward, Mandela was elected President of the nation and faced the difficulty of uniting a very divided nation. Whites feared retribution and loss of property and businesses that had been established during the long years of government directed Apartheid policies. Blacks were angry at being denied their rights for so long, angry at having been imprisoned for their efforts to free themselves from bondage to a white minority government.
Clint Eastwood's movie, now out on DVD, Invictus, tells the story of Mandela's decision to use a rugby team's participation in a South Africa hosted World Cup Championship to unite the nation. The movie, which stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, portrays Mandela as being intent on bringing together a nation, understanding that the national rugby team, the Springboks were beloved by the Afrikaners, but hated by Blacks who saw them as poster children of apartheid. It's revealed in the movie that Mandela, while on Robben Island, would root for whoever was playing against the Springboks, because this got under the skin of his guards. More broadly, black South Africans as a whole rooted for whoever played against the Springboks as a sign of their protest against apartheid.
According to the movie, Mandela believed that if the Afrikaners understood that they wouldn't lose their beloved team and that Blacks could embrace it, then there would be the first step toward reconciliation. Pienaar, at least as portrayed in the movie, came from a middle-class Afrikaner family that detested the new president, in large part out of fear of what might happen. Pienaar has his view of the world changed when the President invites him to tea. They talk briefly about rugby, but the focus is on leadership. After the meeting Pienaar realizes that Mandela not only wants the team to win the World Cup, but that he has been charged with helping lead a nation toward unity.
I realize that with any movie such as this there is artistic license and created dialog. We don't know what exactly went through the minds of the primary actors, but we're helped to understand the process by which reconciliation was attempted, and that a rugby game, which was described in the movie as "a hooligans game played by gentlemen" could be the vehicle.
Freeman is masterful as Mandela, while Damon plays Pienaar with an understated dignity. Both deserve their accolades. But what struck me, besides this interplay between sports captain and president, was the interplay within Mandela's body guards. Mandela brought with him the body guards that had protected him prior to his election, but now that he is president, the head of this unit realizes that he needs more staff, and receives that help in the form of several white police officers, men who had protected the previous president. These officers represented all that the men in this unity hated about apartheid, but as the movie progresses these men come together and not only form a solid unit, but actually begin to develop a friendship.
The title of the movie, Invictus, stems from a Victorian poem written by William Henley, which according to the movie, sustained Mandela while in prison. Shortly before the final championship match, Mandela gives Pienaar a hand written copy of the poem as an inspiration. The last stanza of the poem is key:
It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Pienaar hears this as a call to be the master of his own fate, even as Mandela had been of his.
As for the movie itself, it is well acted, well written, and tells an important story that many of us have let creep into the recesses of our minds. What the movie does for us is provide an excellent opportunity to consider the question of reconciliation and forgiveness when the alienation is at its greatest. We're reminded that this is not easy, nor that it comes quickly. And, sometimes you need symbolic opportunities to come together to build relationships, such as a rugby match. It is, a message whose time has come!