Cry freedom: The story behind Invictus

I left behind my family and my friends (and my rugby boots), and a country shrouded in oppression. Conditions were getting worse, as the white Nationalist government clamped down on the growing black liberation movement, and on the few white liberals who opposed apartheid. Many of my friends were arrested and spent time in solitary confinement before they were released on bail and escaped to live overseas.

I left South Africa and its politics and struggle behind when I returned to the United States and made a new life for myself, but I never forgot. Like so many South African exiles, I watched the African National Congress (ANC) become increasingly militant, and watched the South African police and military become increasingly violent in response. We read of black children shot down by armored cars as they stoned police patrols in the townships, and we watched as South Africa became a world pariah, its economy slowly starved by international sanctions and its sports teams excluded from international tournaments.

Then came the impossible: Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and negotiations were opened between the Nationalist government and the ANC. Whatever the reasons — the isolation of the white regime, the growing political violence or the rise of an increasingly educated black middle class — the white Afrikaaner leadership had come to understand that to maintain security it must begin talking with black leaders.

Thus began the process that inexorably led to the election of Nelson Mandela as the first president of a new multiracial South African democracy. What followed was equally amazing. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, to allow victims of the most egregious crimes of apartheid to confront their tormentors face to face, and those perpetrators who were willing to speak the truth were granted amnesty.

This is the backdrop for the events portrayed in Invictus. Rugby was traditionally the game of the white Afrikaaners who had controlled the old racist government. Black South Africans played soccer, not rugby, and if they paid any attention to rugby matches, they cheered for the Springboks’ opponents.

Early in the movie, a committee of the newly empowered ANC prepares to replace the Springbok name and colors as the symbol of South African sports. But Mandela (Morgan Freeman) insists on saving the Springboks, because he seeks reconciliation between black and white South Africans, not revenge. He befriends Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the young Afrikaaner captain of the demoralized Springbok rugby team, and gradually leads Pienaar to share his vision of the Springboks as representatives of all of South Africa’s people. Pienaar, in turn, begins to infuse his team with the fire to prevail on behalf of their newly unified country.

Mandela insists that the Springboks take time from their grueling training schedule to give rugby clinics to children in the black townships. The Springboks, who are all white except one black player, Chester, have never seen the poverty of the black townships. Despite their initial reluctance, the Springboks can’t resist the sheer joy of the young black boys as they cluster around their new hero, Chester, and they all run down the playing field passing the ball back and forth. But when Pienaar give his team copies of the new national anthem so that they can sing along at the opening of international test matches, many of the players toss it away in disgust.

Mandela begins to win them over, memorizing the name of each player and visiting the team as they practice. As the Springboks advance through the qualifying rounds of the World Cup, the whole country begins rooting for them. When the final match against the previously invincible New Zealand team goes into overtime, blacks and whites watch and listen together, transfixed. Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela with great dignity, but also with the joy and sweetness of a man released from decades in prison, free to enjoy the pure pleasure of the sports fan whose team is on a roll.

And the rugby in the movie is superb. You see and hear the power and precision as boot thwacks into ball, feel the impact as defenders smash into attackers, and experience the grunting strain as players lock shoulders and pack down to heave and push the other side off the loose ball.

So, for me, Invictus is the whole package. It’s a great sports movie, and a great introduction to rugby. But more important, Clint Eastwood has made an inspirational film that takes us inside a little-known episode in the emergence of a free, multiracial South Africa. If you need a booster shot for your faith in humanity, go see Invictus.

Watching Invictus — the film about Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unify his country in support of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks — I cried. I cried as the white Springbok rugby team gives a clinic for young black children in the township slums; I cried when the team wins its first match; I cried as they sing “Nkosi Sikelele Africa,” South Africa’s post-apartheid national anthem, before the final big game at the climax of the story. I cried from joy, I cried from disbelief, I cried from hope, and I cried from homesickness. “You can’t imagine how much this means to me,” I said to my son as we left the theater.

You see, I lived in South Africa for eight years during the dark days of apartheid, when it was unimaginable that things would ever change. I moved to South Africa as a teenager in 1963, the same year Nelson Mandela was arrested at Rivonia and began 27 years in prison at Robben Island. I played rugby as a schoolboy at a Johannesburg boarding school, and I loved the sport for its power, speed and teamwork; my rugby boots were my favorite possession. Later, in 1971, I was deported from South Africa for my participation in anti-apartheid protests at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where I had been a student and then a lecturer.

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