Invictus and the love of country.

John Carlin's Playing the Enemy is the basis for Invictus.

Dunreith and I watched Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s feel-good representation of the true story of South Africa’s 1995 victory in the Rugby World Cup it hosted.

When the finals took place against the vaunted and heavily favored All Blacks of New Zealand, which featured the punishing Jonah Lomu, I had gained admission to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange program and had a plan to talk with Vukani Cele, my exchange partner.

The call never happened as Vukani and the rest of the nation were caught up in a delirious and unprecedented joint national celebration and did not make it back to Durban.

Invictus, which is based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, gives us a better understanding why.

I have written before about Carlin’s book, so won’t recap it too much here other than to say that then-President Nelson Mandela had a visceral and profound grasp on the power of symbol and of the meaning of sport to white South Africans.  The international boycott of South African sporting teams may have contributed to white voters’ approving F.W. DeKlerk’s 1992 referendum among white voters to have a second and larger vote with all citizens, according to Arlene Getz in a Newsweek piece that ran shortly after the movie opened in theaters last year.

Mandela’s understanding culminated and converged in his donning the once-hated Springboks jersey with the captain Francois Pienaar’s number 6 on it before the championship game.

Carlin describes how Mandela forged this insight during his nearly 30 years in prison, during which time he studied his enemies and gradually won them over. He also drew strength from the 19th century poem that is the film’s title.

Having arrived in South Africa shortly after apartheid ended and just two months after the momentous victory, I was struck repeatedly by how deeply black, white, Indian and mixed-race citizens loved their nation.  The tragedy, of course, was that the apartheid system had led to such oppression.  The miracle in many ways is that the transition could have been so much more bloody.  And the sadness is that much of promise of the early years remains unfulfilled. The ANC still has no viable opposition, the gap between rich and poor has only increased, with the change being that many black South Africans have joined the ranks of the elite, HIV and AIDS are rampant, and crime has reached epidemic proportions.

Despite these myriad and seemingly daunting problems, a core love of country and a quiet determination that things will yet turn right animates many South Africans.  I saw it in the summer of 2007, when Jon and I traveled there for a project and spoke to, among others, a white librarian in Johannesburg and many black South Africans in the northwestern part of the nation.

The eyes of the world will in just two short weeks again be on South Africa, this time for the world’s largest sporting event.  I have no doubt that my friends from that year will be at many of the games, that activity in the country will come to a nearly complete stop for the month, and that the bone-deep love of the country, expressed in the Sandile Dikeni poem below, still flows in Alan Paton’s Beloved Country:

Sandile Dikeni

My country is for love
so say its valleys
where ancient rivers flow
the full circle of life
under the proud eye of birds
adorning the sky.

My country is for peace
so says the veld
where reptiles caress
its surface
with elegant motions
glittering in their pride

My country
is for joy
so talk the mountains
with baboons
hopping from boulder to boulder
in the majestic delight
of cliffs and peaks

My country
is for health and wealth
see the blue of the sea
and beneath
the jewels of fish
deep under the bowels of soil
the golden voice
of a miner’s praise
for my country

My country
is for unity
feel the millions
see their passion
their hands are joined together
there is hope in their eyes

we shall celebrate


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