Monday, December 21, 2009

Invictus - My Memory of the Game


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

William Ernest Henly

It is said that Nelson Mandela drew inspiration from this poem which he kept on a scrap of paper in his prison cell for 27 years.

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as newly elected President Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, Springbok Rugby Team captain, is based on a book by John Carlin entitled “Playing The Enemy”. The movie, set in South Africa, tells the tale of a rugby tournament, a country whose fate hangs in the balance, and the iconic president whose brilliant insight into the human psyche saves the day … And it’s a true story! Indeed, Matt Damon said in a recent interview that the script was peppered with footnotes saying “this really happened!”

The movie underscores the irony of a game like rugby taking on so much importance in Nelson Mandela’s fledgling governance and his effort to ease the birth pains of the “New South Africa”. Rugby was the game of the oppressors; the masters and enforcers of apartheid before and during the long years of Mandela’s incarceration. Nelson Mandela studied his Afrikaner warders during his time in prison. He understood how important the game of rugby was to them, and how much the majority of the country, the former victims of apartheid, despised it. When the country was awarded the role of host nation for the 1995 Rugby World Cup series, he realized what a unique opportunity this presented to unite a still divided post-apartheid nation. He drew on his intimate knowledge of the nature of his erstwhile enemy and set out to inspire the underdog South African team to achieve victory against great odds, hoping to unite the country in a common goal.

My family was there, in South Africa, on the day in 1995 when the Springboks faced the mighty All Blacks, the New Zealand team, in the historic final match. We watched as a South African Airways Jumbo Jet buzzed the rugby field, the words “GOOD LUCK BOKKE” clearly visible on the underside of the wings - we had never seen anything like it! When Mandela himself appeared on the field before the game wearing a Springbok rugby jersey and cap, we all went wild, cheering, clapping and chanting "Shosholosa". The movie does not stray from these details, nor does it embellish – even Hollywood couldn’t dream up a better story. The game was rife with heart-stopping tension and the scrums depicted in the movie give us a close-up view of how hard this game is really played.

Filled with happiness and a totally foreign feeling of national pride that we didn’t know what to do with, we piled into our car after the game and drove through suburban Johannesburg, waving our New South African flags out the windows and honking the horn at all the other, equally novice, revelers thronging the streets in similar fashion. We ended up in Sandton City, our neighborhood shopping centre, where we bought a Mandela-style caftan emblazoned with our President’s face. My ordinarily dignified husband donned it and proceeded to toyi toyi with a group of cleaning ladies, while the children and I clapped them on. It’s a moment that I have never forgotten. Indeed, it was one of those golden days in the life of my family that we’ll always remember.

The goodwill carried over into our day-to-day lives, engendering camaraderie in South Africans of all races. That tournament, climaxing in the final game, triggered a fundamental change in South African hearts and minds and placed us, however imperfectly, on the path to unity and equality - just as the president had foreseen it would.

My family went together to see Invictus yesterday in Sarasota and it was as though we were back in Johannesburg in 1995. Morgan Freeman IS Nelson Mandela. He looks like him, he moves like him, he speaks like him - even in Afrikaans! Matt Damon plays the rugby captain with admirable restraint, and he, too, manages what is reputed to be the most difficult accent to mimic. The entire cast performs excellently and the bodyguard scenes deserve special mention. Clint Eastwood succeeds in evoking a time and place in a movie that, even in its akward moments, shines with authenticity.

Invictus is Latin for “unconquered” - an apt title for an inspiring movie that offers us a glimpse into a dramatic moment in the life of a nation and of the man who led it with his “unconquerable soul” and his innate understanding of the true meaning of goodwill towards all men.


  1. What a great story! Thanks for sharing your family's memory - I feel privileged to hear a first hand account of this event.

    I was intrigued by the previews of this movie - I will have to put it on my "to see"list. Great essay.

  2. This is a wonderful story, wonderfully told. Thank you for your generosity in bringing us inside these events with the story of your own family's experience. Having your story in hand will give me a much richer perspective when I go to see Invictus (soon!). Thank you, too, for providing the poem and placing it in history, as well as including the two terrific photographs and the rich array of links. Terrific post!

  3. Thank you both!
    FYI - notice that the first photo is of Nelson Mandela with Francois Pienaar in 1995, while the second is Morgan Freeman with Matt Damon in the movie.

  4. I read Carol-Ann’s post and found it to be quite moving. The comparisons between the real men and the actors in the photos is astounding. I hadn’t been too interested in seeing “Invictus,” but now I will plan to do so.

  5. Serious editing screw-up makes the jumbo jet seem like 9/11 wannabe, not a cheering section. Otherwise an excellent movie, Clint's best (so far).

  6. Alex, that's what I thought of, too, when I saw the jet buzzing the field, in the movie. That sort of scene is carved into our psyches now, isn't it? It always evokes a visceral response.
    At the time, of course, none of us thought that - it was 1995. It was a rather scary site, though, until we were able to read the words on the underside of the wings.

  7. Thanks for this post - It's great to get the first person perspective. I'm an England rugby fan and a Bafta member - and I've just watched the film so I can vote on it. I had completely forgotten all the detail which was real. Thoroughly enjoyed the film and - barring the height difference between Freeman and Mandela (which was a bit offputting) - it reminds me what a fantastic achievement it was for Pienaar and that team - and the country.

  8. Hi Raining Acorns .. you know I saw this post and was going to come back and comment - but life got difficult .. my mother was quite seriously ill for 6m; and I never saw the film .. and obviously I never got here ..

    Love the poem .. I must remember it and see the film .. all things in good time ..

    Cheers and good luck to you all Hilary


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