Invictus (2009) – early steps in uniting post-apartheid South Africa: the 3rd Rugby World Cup

“Invictus” is a film based on John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.”

Directed by Clint Eastwood (who is really churning them out these days) the film stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela (who else?) and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar. It describes how South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela threw his weight behind the 3rd Rugby World Cup in 1995 in an effort to help unite the country and reconcile white South Africans. The county had witnessed its debut democratic elections of 1994 which had ushered in a new era but also carried seething wounds of its apartheid past.

While the film provides hints about the context, it may be a little understated to young viewers. I’d suggest picking up Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” (1978) to gain some appreciation for how different things were.

Rugby, during apartheid South Africa was played mainly by white South Africans who treated it like a religion. However, the South African team had been isolated, having been banned from international competition as a result of the country’s apartheid regime – the Commonwealth of Nations Gleneagles Agreement in 1977 discouraged sporting contact and competition with South Africa. The restriction worked both ways and players from other countries were not allowed to play in South Africa. Singapore’s own 1978 Sportsman of the Year, Song Koon Poh, joined an international group, the Tokkie Dragons, to tour South Africa and was slapped with a life ban as a result.

So the 3rd Rugby World Cup was the first time South African would be participating in an international competition. The team automatically qualified as hosts and no one really expected them to get far. However, they defied all expectations by beating a strong Australian side in the opening game and eventually worked their way to the finals at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on 24th of June, 1995.

Facing them on the pitch with the opening Maori war chant, the Haka (accurately re-created in the film with the help of a Kiwi), were an All-Blacks team at the top of their game. This included the towering Jonah Lomu, introduced to the world like a thunderbolt bursting through the slightest gaps. During the semi-finals, Jonah Lomu had bowled over poor-tackling three-quarters mercilessly to shatter a shocked England. The New Zealanders were technically brilliant in their forward play as well and seemed unstoppable. The Lomu factor was alluded to in the film but it would have been better explained with the image of one of his blazing runs – for sure tapes of the NZ-England game were well studied by the South Africans.

Mandela who was working hard to bring about reconciliation in the country, saw even more potential in the tournament. The sight of Mandela in a No. 6 green and gold Springboks jersey during the finals was shocking even to viewers around the world familiar with the country’s history and political developments. As the mainly white stadium chanted “Nelson! Nelson!”, you could appreciate Mandela’s wisdom in healing the soul of the country and the role he knew sports could play in uniting the nation.

This was echoed in the post-match interview on the pitch with team captain Francois Pienaar. In an interview broadcast around the world, he was asked by SABC reporter David van der Sandt.: “Francois, we had 65,000 South Africans here today, tremendous support.” He replied, “David, we didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans.”

Invictus opens in Singapore on 7th January 2010.
Thanks for the video link, Alvin!


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