South Africa in the 20th century had many words to describe it but none were flattering. Words like hate, suffering, anguish, separation, ignorance and apartheid. Apartheid is best described as government institutionalized racism and is Afrikaans for apartness. The South African government disfranchised black voters and non-white citizens. An American example that is similar is the Jim Crow laws in the south While there was wide spread racism in South Africa for several years before that, it was made into law in 1948. It took the resolve of Nelson Mandela to guide the country in a new direction.
Nelson Mandela was a part of the African National Congress which was a freedom rights group who resorted to acts of vandalism and destruction public property. While initially a peaceful group staging public protests, Nelson Mandela himself had come to the conclusion that violent agitation was the only path to freedom. Eventually, Mandela was jailed for a period of 27 years from 1963 until his release in 1990 coinciding with the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It would not be far-fetched to say that most men would have faltered after their time in prison but not Mandela. He knew South Africa had to take a different path unlike other African nations. To achieve this, Mandela would enact controversial ideas to unify South Africa in order for it to prosper going forward.
Invictus details the struggle that Mandela had to endure in the backdrop of South Africa winning the rugby world cup in 1995. The film released in 2009 stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in the leading roles as Nelson Mandela and Francois Piennar respectively. Francois Piennar was the captain of the South African team. While it does come across as a generic sports film, the director, Clint Eastwood, manages to integrate the issues plaguing the country at the time. The opening shot of the film sets the stage for the rest of the film. There is a long road that separates two playing fields. On One end, there are young white boys playing rugby. The grass is green and lush. The young white boys are dressed in rugby porting gear. On the other side, there is a group of young black boys playing football. They are playing barefoot in tattered clothes. The field is muddy and barren. The contrast in the fencing reflects this as well as the ‘white’ side has regular professional fencing whilst the ‘black’ side has tattered barb wire acting as a fence. A stream of cars passes by with Mandela in one of the cars. The young black boys stop what they’re doing and immediately rush to the fence shouting Mandela’s name and waving. The young white boys have stopped as well and stare as the cars pass by with a look of stymied terror on their faces. Their coach remarks, “Remember this day, boys, the day your country went to the dogs.” This scene eloquently portrays the predicament that Nelson Mandela would have to overcome when he became president in 1994.
When it came to sport, South Africa made sure that no black South Africans would be included in any sporting event. Sport was just another form of oppression and a way to institute the separation of the races. The Springboks were the national rugby team for South Africa. It was a symbol of the apartheid era that South Africa had escaped from. Most black South Africans are portrayed as exemplifying hate for the springboks as well as taking pleasure in their losses. In one scene, the African National Congress (ANC) votes unanimously votes to get rid of the springboks as the team name as well as their uniform as the team is a reminder of oppression. Mandela attends the meeting and replies that no such thing shall happen. Much to the aghast of the party, he reinforces the need for the team. While the team meant nothing to black South Africans, for the rest of the nation, it did. Mandela goes on to say to take that away from them would be detrimental to their cause. This scene represents a very important step for the people of South Africa. It can also be argued that this scene even represents the very controversial Truth and Reconciliation commission that followed in 1996.
The truth and reconciliation commission was a legislative body designed to hear out the perpetrators and victims of abuse during apartheid. The perpetrators of violent crimes would confess to the legislative body in front of the public and request amnesty. This was considered controversial as many were not sure if the wounds of the past has been closed or opened up even further. According to Greg Barrow of BBC News, “It has been an unprecedented experiment in trying to heal the wounds of the apartheid era, but after more than two years of hearings and investigations some people are asking how much reconciliation has been achieved by exposure of dark truth from South Africa's dark past.” The commission is still debated today as to its success or failure but it shows the impossible task a country like South Africa had to overcome. Another scene in the film is when Mandela first comes to power. The secret service/government agents are mostly members of the ANC or appointed by them to protect Mandela. They are in a room going over the security detail. The ‘white’ government agents walk into the room saying they are reporting for duty and will work under the ANC appointed presidential guard. The ANC head Jason (Tony Kgoroge) is fuming and complains to Mandela of his displeasure of the new appointees. Mandela tells him to work with them irrespective of their differences. This is another recurring motif of overcoming the odds and characters looking past differences for a single goal. On first meeting, the agents can’t stand each other’s company whilst at the end of the film there is mutual respect on both sides.
A recurring theme in most sports films is that the team is in disharmony at the beginning and come together by the end. This film is unique as the country is the one at odds and not the Springboks. Even though there is a black player in the team, he is treated one and the same as the others. If anything, the team would rather have not been involved in any state politics. According to David Smith of The Guardian, “The men came together when Pienaar captained South Africa to victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. When the blond Afrikaner shook hands with the black freedom fighter turned president, they instantly forged one of the country's defining images of racial unity.” Mandela was voted into power in 1994 and realized an opportunity to rally the whole country behind the team. It is the oldest trick in the political handbook. Use a singular issue; get the country behind it and partnerships are forged. In this case, it was the partnership between Mandela and the people of South Africa.
The springboks are essentially trust into spotlight and Mandela uses them as a tool for change. They are sent on a promotional tour to the non-white areas of South Africa which are engulfed in poverty. They provide training sessions for the underprivileged black children thereby trying to win the hearts and minds of the black population of South Africa. In another very important but poignant scene, the team captain Francois Piennar takes the squad to Robben Island. Robben Island was where Mandela was imprisoned. They visit his cell and Piennar encases himself in the cell while the others wander. He looks at the size and is humbled at what Mandela had to endure during his imprisonment. Morgan Freeman is narrating this entire scene ending it with “I’m the master of my faith; I’m the captain of my soul.” Piennar now sees life through the eyes of Mandela. He is on the path to reconciliation.
One of the most underlying motifs of the film is objects or symbols of hate now being used as weapons of peace. For instance, Nelson Mandela was a black freedom fighter who was willing to take the country by force in his younger years. Once he emerged from prison, he realized that only peace and prosperity were the way forward for South Africa. Francois Pienner was the product of the Apartheid system. According to David Smith of the Guardian, “Francois Pienner says, ‘you didn't ask questions like why black kids don't go to school with you, why is it just all white? That's how you grew up, which is very wrong and very sad. I wish I'd had the courage of conviction to ask questions, but I didn't’." Francois Pienner is a changed man at the end of the film. Another important scene is when Nelson Mandela first walks on to the rugby field; he is booed by most of the white crowd. When the Springboks win the world cup, he walks onto the field in the team jersey. The whole crowd keeps cheering his name. The springbok jersey which was supposed to be a symbol of oppression is now a symbol of hope and racial unity. President Barak Obama once said, “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.” These words ring through in the life of Nelson Mandela. His suffering and imprisonment could have made him a bitter man. Once released from prison, he could have taken the country by force. He chose a different path. He realized that forgiveness was of the essence and not revenge. He used his wits and bet it all on a rugby team whose captain was inspired by his story. This was a team that was written off by news pundits as not having a chance at winning the world cup. At the end of the film when Mandela hands the world cup to Pienner, it is a symbol of harmony and peace. At that moment, they both became captains of the soul of a country that needed guidance in the face of hopelessness and adversity. What follows is the people of South Africa becoming masters of their fate and in control of their destiny.
- Greg, Barrow. "South Africans Reconciled?" BBC News. BBC, 30 Oct. 1998. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.
- Smith, David. "Francois Pienaar: 'When the Whistle Blew, South Africa Changed Forever'" www.theguardian.com. The Guardian, 8 Dec. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2014
- INVICTUS. Perf. Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon. WARNER Bros., 2009. DVD.