Victory that built a nation

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Invictus: victory that built a nation

As power passed to the black majority, Nelson Mandela embraced the Springboks rugby team, heroes of the Afrikaner whites. So why does Clint Eastwood's Invictus make an outspoken South African writer feel ashamed?

By Rian Malan 28 Jan 2010


This is a story about Nelson Mandela, but I think it should begin with a half-hearted spattering of applause for F?W de Klerk, the machine politician who led the Afrikaner volk out of its primordial laager and into the happy land of muddle-through in which South Africans now dwell so uneasily. Alas, poor F?W. Burdened by the reeking albatross of apartheid and cursed with a stiff, earnest personality, he never stood a chance against Mandela in the global popularity stakes. His biography sold a few thousand copies; Mandela’s sold millions. His charitable foundation limps along in the shadows. Mandela’s grows more lustrous daily, its coffers bloated by donations from international celebrities desperate to be photographed alongside the supernaturally charming Madiba, as Mandela is often called. As for motion pictures, we’ve already been treated to any number of sentimental confections celebrating aspects of the Mandela legend, while de Klerk languishes in almost total celluloid obscurity. Now there’s another one, Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s film of South Africa’s victory at the 1995 rugby world cup, famously embraced by Mandela in his Springboks jersey.

This is a bit unfair, considering that de Klerk was arguably the chief architect of South Africa’s miracle of 1994, but what can you do? De Klerk was up against an opponent he couldn’t possibly defeat, and the enemy was not Mandela. It was a great, syrupy myth conjured up by sentimental American liberals, who insisted on seeing the South African struggle as a rerun of their own Civil Rights movement. There were no Communists in this sweet tableau, no bloody revolutionary excesses. The African National Congress was inevitably depicted as an army of hymn-singing Uncle Toms, initially led by English-speaking clerics who just wanted a smidgen of justice and dignity. Then the prison doors swung open and into the spotlight stepped Nelson Mandela, instantly dwarfing Martin Luther King and Bill Cosby in the American pantheon of seriously nice black guys.

Among the hacks who serviced this myth was John Carlin, who covered South Africa in the early Nineties for The Independent. Details of my disagreements with Carlin are lost to memory, so let’s just say that I saw him as something of a useful idiot, prone to giving the ANC the benefit of the doubt in any situation and averse to reporting the chicanery in which it was then engaged, purporting to talk peace with de Klerk while simultaneously plotting his violent overthrow. Carlin no doubt saw me as an unreconstructed reactionary, and he had a point; I disliked his line, and the ease with which he passed lofty moral judgments on situations that struck me as howlingly ambiguous.

It’s usually pleasing to see a fellow hack score a movie deal, but I was horrified to hear that Hollywood was planning to turn Carlin’s book about the 1995 Rugby World Cup into a motion picture. I once lived in Hollywood, under the D in the famous hillside sign. I know that town and its sentimental proclivities. The best line ever uttered about Hollywood was penned by film critic, Joe Morgenstern, in an essay pondering Gandhi’s multiple triumphs at the 1983 Oscars. Why, asked Morgenstern, had the greedy, arrogant and ego-bloated members of the Academy voted en masse for Attenborough’s movie about an Indian ascetic? “Gandhi was everything Hollywood moguls long to be but aren’t,” Morgenstern explained. “Thin, tan and moral.”

The prospect of such people joining with Carlin to make a movie about Nelson Mandela filled me with dread. Nothing good could possibly come of it. South Africa would be depicted as a country divorced from its continent, populated by caricatural white villains and noble black victims. Facts would be raped, truth subordinated to the needs of a sentimental storyline, de Klerk and his ilk once again made fun of. And I would be forced to once again take up arms in defence of the tattered remnants of Afrikaner honour.

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So then, the truth: I set forth to see Clint Eastwood’s movie of Carlin’s book in a warlike frame of mind, armed with a digital recorder on which I intended to capture every cliché, every error, every outbreak of simpering political rectitude. There are several of these in the resulting recording, but there is also the sound of my girlfriend sobbing alongside me, and my own voice breaking as I repeat corny lines just uttered by the actors on screen. I am dreadfully, dreadfully ashamed of myself, but the truth must be told: in spite of everything, I was deeply moved by Invictus.

The film is set in the immediate aftermath of Mandela’s ascendance to the state presidency, a time of massive psychic dislocation in South Africa. The ANC was struggling to find its feet in government; rising crime seemed to portend a slide into anarchy while centrifugal forces tore at the fragile centre, among them Right-wing Afrikaners who bitterly resented their loss of power. Mandela knew that these potential rebels had to be pacified, and he had the wisdom to spot the most likely means. When his own comrades moved to strip the national rugby team of its Springbok emblem (they wanted the 'Boks to be known as the Proteas, which came dangerously close to pansies), the old man stepped in and ordered them to let rugby be. Then he transformed himself into the Springboks’ number one fan, memorising the names of the players, visiting their practice sessions and urging them to win the 1995 World Cup for a nation that existed only on paper.

For many blacks, Mandela’s behaviour bordered on race betrayal, but the old man was playing a canny game. Afrikaners hold rugby sacred, and we found his interest in the sport inexplicable but hugely endearing, especially when he came to the World Cup final wearing Springbok colours. Screeds have been written about Mandela’s political courage and generosity of spirit, but it was more than that: he seemed to be showing that he loved us, in spite of everything, and it suddenly seemed churlish not to respond in kind. So the boys pulled themselves together and proceeded, against all odds, to beat New Zealand, a triumph that reduced hard-core Boers to uncontrollable weeping and cries of: “That’s my president.”

If this sounds like a Hollywood ending, well, it was; music swelled, deadly enemies were at least temporarily reconciled and no one left dry-eyed. Invictus lays it on a bit thick, but what you see on the screen is pretty accurate. In fact, it’s great, thanks to an uncanny performance from Morgan Freeman, playing Mandela. Much credit also to director Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, who had the good sense to let the story tell itself. There were one or two outbreaks of Boer-bashing, but audiences here in South Africa seem to have taken them in their stride. In fact, Afrikaans critics loved the movie. One had minor quibbles about rugby technicalities, but the rest found the movie “inspirational”, and their bosses seized the opportunity to editorialise about Mandela’s precious legacy of interracial tolerance and understanding.

Myself, I can’t give up quite so easily. Invictus tells the truth as regards rugby, but it is otherwise riddled with errors of omission, several of which are laid out in The Last Trek, de Klerk’s 1998 autobiography. Around the time of the World Cup, for instance, Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi was rattling sabres over Mandela’s refusal to honour a promise to submit their differences to international arbitration. De Klerk says he offered to mediate, but Mandela wasn’t interested. “He told me he wanted to crush Buthelezi,” writes de Klerk – by force if necessary. Around the same time, Mandela was also refusing to grant amnesty to apartheid’s police and soldiers – another less than generous move, considering that de Klerk had already freed thousands of ANC armed strugglers on the understanding that the gesture would be reciprocated.

Such anecdotes sit awkwardly alongside Invictus’s depiction of Mandela as a man of almost infinite wisdom, honour and courtesy. He memorises the names of his lowliest minions, inquires about their wives. He pours the tea himself, sparing his white maid the indignity. At almost every turn, he intones, “Bygones are bygones” and urges his followers to rise above vengeance. “Reconciliation begins here,” he says. “Forgiveness, too.”

This is Mandela as we know him, and yet and yet. Invictus features a touching scene set on his first day in office, when the great reconciliator is shown addressing apprehensive white staff inherited from his predecessor. “If you feel you can’t work with me, you’re welcome to leave,” he says, “but I need your help, and I’d really like you to stay.” Heart-warming stuff, but there is less here than meets the eye. In real life, the ANC had committed itself to retaining white civil servants for at least five years; Mandela couldn’t have fired them even if he’d wanted to.

But including such details would have spoiled the plot, and you can’t have that in a Hollywood movie. Nor is it entirely fair to expect an ex-cowboy like Eastwood to think too deeply about America’s curious love affair with a leader from the far side of the planet. When I lived among them, I often felt that American liberals would rather put out their eyes than see Mandela in all his dimensions. They downplayed his comradely friendships with Castro, Arafat and Gaddafi, ignored the hammer-and-sickle banners at his rallies, refused to believe he’d been jailed for plotting to start a war in which millions might have died. They saw him as a moderate Civil Rights leader, and when he spoke of forgiveness, they swooned, possibly because they yearned to hear similar words from their own long-suffering black population and had never been thus gratified.

But who am I to talk? Mandela seduced me too, first on the day of that great rugby match, and then again last Sunday, in the air-conditioned darkness of a Johannesburg cinema. On both occasions, I knew he was manipulating us towards an outcome of his own devising, but I went along anyway, partly because he seemed to be heading towards a better place than the one we’d come from, but mostly because it just felt so good to be in his company. I was not alone. The ’95 World Cup Final was a watershed moment for an entire generation of white South Africans. We talk about it in much the same way Americans once talked about the Kennedy assassination: where were you; do you remember? It was an event of almost no significance in the larger scheme of things, but nothing was ever quite the same again. For us.

It’s just as well that Invictus ends where it does, because it spares Carlin and Eastwood from confronting a question that arose in the aftermath: did blacks share this exalted view of Mandela’s actions? And, did Mandela himself see it as anything more than a ploy to divide and confuse his enemies?

South Africa’s Government of National Unity disintegrated a few weeks later, and after that, it was back to business as usual. ANC sports commissars renewed their efforts to strip the Boks of their beloved emblem and threatened dire retribution if coaches failed to select more black players. Race relations resumed their oscillation between terror and ecstasy. In 1999, Mandela was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, who set about re-racialising South Africa with a vengeance. In 2007, he too donned Springbok colours and joined the boys on the field to celebrate another World Cup victory, but by then we were all too cynical to care. Rugby had become, once again, just a game.

But enough of facts and political argument. Movies, especially Hollywood movies, are dreams that celebrate the triumph of likeable underdogs, of good over evil and love over hate. That’s why we love them, and why the return to reality is so sad, especially for South Africans. As I write, we’re steeling ourselves for humiliation in the forthcoming world football shindig, a tournament in which our national squad appears doomed to instant elimination. But they said much the same of the Boks in 1995, and lo, a miracle intervened. I know, because I’ve seen Invictus.

'Invictus’ is out on Friday February 5. Rian Malan is the author of 'Resident Alien’, writings on post-apartheid South Africa

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