Long walk to freedom
Quality movies about South Africa are a bit like buses. You can wait a long time for them and half a dozen arrive all at once.
Last year saw Skin (apartheid in the ’50s and ’60s), Disgrace (apartheid in the post-apartheid South Africa; based on Nobel prize winner J M Coetzee’s book) and District 9 (apartheid in the future). 2010 kicks off (oh yes, sports puns are here to stay) with Invictus followed later this year by The Bang Bang Club (photojournalists document the township troubles).
If you’ve seen A Dry White Season, Cry the Beloved Country or Cry Freedom (’80s and early ’90s) you will be familiar with the bleak political and emotional landscape which South Africa’s modern stories have inhabited. And rightly so. Apartheid has been and is a large part of the nation’s psyche. The legacy of 300 years of minority rule (by both British and Dutch) has cast a long shadow over its future.
Invictus, which is released this week, takes a more optimistic view of South Africa’s future by looking back at one of the key nation-building moments in the young democracy’s life, the 1995 Rugby World Cup – a classic sports tale of the underdog achieving the unimaginable. It may be South Africa’s story but Hollywood has picked it up and done what they do well – get unlikely Americans to sport dodgy foreign accents. Clint Eastwood directs. Morgan Freeman is Nelson Mandela. Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar (the Springboks’ captain – although Damon is much shorter in real life when compared to Pienaar). And Danny de Vito is F W de Klerk. Okay, the last one isn’t true but in Los Angeles anything is possible. Eastwood had the tough task of taking a sport thoroughly foreign to Americans and somehow getting them engaged. Rugby does after all involve a series of men attempting to move forwards by throwing a ball backwards in the hope of scoring a try which is actually worth 5 points.
Invictus tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s determination to use the World Cup as way of uniting white and black people through a sport which whites saw as divinely theirs and blacks saw as a symbol of oppression. As he watches an earlier game he experiences how the blacks cheer the touring opposition team and the white crowds boo when he walks out. This results in Mandela developing a relationship with Pienaar, with the aim of inspiring him and his team to winning the tournament. In fact, the title of the film comes from the poem (by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley) which Mandela used for inspiration in his prison cell and shares with Pienaar, the final stanza summing it all up:
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.
(In reality Mandela actually gave Pienaar an excerpt from a speech by Roosevelt called ‘The Man in the Arena’. But that would be too confusing in a Hollywood screenplay.)
Mandela believed then, as he explains do his suspicious black aides, that the cycle of hate had to come to an end and that reconciliation must begin with them. He was going to embrace the one thing white Afrikaaners feared he would destroy.
Freeman is so genial and likeable as Mandela, Pienaar such a hard-working honest farm boy, that it feels at times like a work of fiction as opposed to what really happened. Which is an indication of how cynical we can be.
Of course, it is all true. I was there – a first-year university student studying architecture in Pretoria. I remember how nervous the new nation was feeling. Many of the old names and symbols of apartheid were being replaced (leading to white anger), there were revolutionary plots being discovered by the police, whites were dubious about Mandela as a president (he had been a ‘terrorist’ to many of them), blacks were understandably angry about years of injustice and looking for ways of redressing old wrongs.
Yet Hollywood or not, the sense of unity which all South Africans felt watching their team progress, rather surprisingly, led to a national sense of euphoria which Desmond Tutu captured in his phrase, ‘the rainbow nation’. When Mandela walked out for the final wearing a Springbok jersey he single-handedly forced his black countrymen to don the same jersey and make Afrikaaners see him as an equal.
Which is frankly a minor miracle. By rights, most white people should have been driven into the sea following the 1994 election for their complicity in apartheid. Had the full letter of the law had been applied, prison sentences and bloodshed would have been a likely outcome.
Instead, Mandela focused on grace. He reached out and embraced his enemy. I cannot think of many other modern leaders, whether in politics, business or even in the home, who have practised such a fundamental Christian principal when it was needed most.
Invictus genuinely captures the period – the moment, even – when South Africa changed from a grimly embattled society characterised by division and discrimination to something much more healthy. As a result, it’s one of the few modern films about the country which is uplifting and life-affirming. Little details from the Topsport TV logo to the Volkskas advertising boards and the Elwierda buses demonstrate Eastwood’s faithful attention to accuracy. The performances are solid and believable, and you’ll leave the cinema feeling that if South Africa can change, anywhere can.