When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990 after serving 27 years, he was returning to a nation torn apart by apartheid. Riots tore through the streets, people were imprisoned and executed for very little reason, and white man was against black man. ‘Separate but unequal’ could have been the slogan of South Africa for the apartheid years, which began in 1948 and lasted for nearly 50 years. Mandela, who had been a radical anti-apartheid leader before his imprisonment in 1964, could easily have used his almost god-like standing with black South Africans and the understandable anger anyone would feel after slightly more than a quarter century behind bars to mobilize his people and cause civil war….but he didn’t. In fact, he took a completely different tactic, which would not only be millions of times more efficient, but would help to bring his shattered country together.
John Carlin’s book, Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made A Nation, tells the story of Mandela’s quest to reunite the country of South Africa in a very nonconventional, and slightly incredible way: rallying the nation behind the South African rugby national team, the Springboks. Rugby had been viewed for years by black South Africans as the ‘white man’s game’ and the symbol of all that was wrong with their country. White South Africans, or Afrikaners,by contrast, loved their sport and their team. The rugby teams of the 1990’s reported meeting very hostile crowds worldwide as they traveled abroad for games, as they were considered symbols of the apartheid and defacto supporters of it. Militant black South Africans rallied to have the team blocked from international competition as a protest towards the treatment they were receiving in their country, and it worked, which angered their Afrikaner countrymen. As an olive branch toward the Afrikaners when he became president in 1993, Mandela reinstated the rugby team and insisted they keep the name Springbok as well as the green rugby jerseys, both of which had been considered apartheid symbols.
While in prison, Mandela spent a lot of time reading about Afrikaners, learning their language, and getting to know his Afrikaner captors. He learned that Afrikaners, underneath, were good people who had been raised in apartheid society and knew nothing else. He also realized that Afrikaners were paralyzed with fear that if the black Africans came to power again, they would exact the revenge that the Afrikaners deserved for the injustices of apartheid. Instead of exacting this revenge, Mandela reached out his hand to Afrikaners in respect and friendship…and it worked. Hard core apartheid supporters melted like butter in his presence, and the two races began to work together. Mandela kept Afrikaner members of his staff in place after he came to the presidency, when most were convinced they would be thrown out. He reached out to Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, to enlist his and his team’s support to unite South Africa under the slogan of “One Team, One Country”. The Springboks did their part by learning to sing the black African national anthem and reaching out to black youth by holding rugby clinics where they could learn the game. Mandela wore the Springbok colors when he went to talk to his people to encourage them to not see Afrikaners as the enemy, but as fellow South Africans. The unbelievable Sprinbok victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was the epitome of all Mandela had hoped to accomplish. Black and white cheered and hugged in the stands, and partied in the streets. Both black and white cheered and called Mandela’s name as he came onto the field to award the cup to the team. It was the beginning of a new era in South Africa.
The book was touted as a sports book, but I felt it was more political than sports driven. It was primarily the story of Mandela and how his years in prison catalyzed his vision for his country. It gave a sweeping view of the struggles and destruction of apartheid, and the shaky baby steps the nation took as Mandela was freed from prison and took office. The story of the Springboks didn’t begin until the middle of the book, and it was a great example of how Afrikaners were converted to the messages of acceptance and forgiveness preached by Mandela. Stories such as how the players cried through the black national anthem, and how the Afrikaners came to accept the lone black player, Chester Williams, as one of their own, were really touching.
I was glad I read the book, after how much I enjoyed the movie, which if you haven’t seen it rent it NOW. Morgan Freeman is AMAZING as Mandela, and Matt Damon is nice eye candy as Pienaar. The book gave a more complete background on the atrocities of apartheid, and made what Mandela accomplished and how he affected people that much more awe-inspiring. There are not many people who have lived on Earth who have had the ability to change hearts and minds as much as Mandela has. We can all learn a lesson from him. Below is a wonderful segment that ESPN put together when Mandela was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2009. Check it out if you can.