Rugby as a uniting force in post-apartheid South Africa


The fall sports season is upon us. College football games are well underway; the NFL commandeers the airwaves several nights a week. NHL skaters are already racing around on manufactured ice. The World Series and the NBA’s regular season both begin October 27.

Small wonder that Movies at the Library has also been seized by sports fever.

Though in this case, the sport is one not much known or played in the U.S. It’s rugby football, and the movie is as much about the nature of leadership, moral authority and nation-building as it is about sport.

The movie is “Invictus.” It was directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, was released by Warner Brothers Pictures in 2009, and runs a rousing 2 hours and 14 minutes. It will be shown at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 13 in the Gill Patterson Community Room at the Library.

At the center of the story is Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them breaking rocks and sleeping on a stone floor on Robben Island, before being elected to lead the nation that had jailed him.

He emerged from his prison years an idol to the black and colored populations of South Africa, a secular saint to the world, a feared threat to the whites who had used apartheid to keep South Africans of color poor, disenfranchised and oppressed. He was also a wily politician, well aware that to be elected is one thing, to govern quite another. Governing through reconciliation and forgiveness became his quest.

But how to unite the white Afrikaners who fear vengeance and the blacks who feel entitled to it? Mandela chose the prism of rugby football as the means to lead all parties to see South Africa as a single nation. It wasn’t easy.

For blacks, the Springboks (South Africa’s nearly all-white national rugby team) were a hated symbol of the past. But in 1950, the Springboks were preparing to host the Rugby World Cup and Mandela, shrewdly and compellingly played by Freeman, knows that winning the title will help the nation toward unity and self-respect.

He forges an alliance between himself and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the Springbok captain and the son of patently racist parents. It is Pienaar’s task to persuade his team to accept the realities of post-apartheid South Africa. Both he and Mandela are aware that the symbolic stakes of the game are very high, not just for the team, but for the nation.

The Springboks’ opponents are the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team. The All Blacks have long dominated world rugby, at one pointing crushing the Japanese team by 90 points. The Springboks, by contrast, are regarded as pariahs in international sports — the “skunks” of the sporting world, as Mandela puts it.

It is in that context that the two teams face each other on the Springboks’ home ground.
“Freeman does a splendid job of evoking the man, Nelson Mandela,” wrote Roger Ebert. “He shows him as genial, confident, calming — over what was clearly a core of tempered steel.”

Claudia Puig, writing in USA Today, called Damon’s performance “stellar.” Both men were nominated for Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

Clint Eastwood was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the National Board of Review Award for Best Director. Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, “… Every scene brims with surprising details that accumulate into a rich fabric of history, cultural impressions and emotion.”

Please join us October 13 to see a film that is both superb cinema and truly good for the soul.