Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) work together on post-apartheid reconciliation in Invictus.

Hollywood has adopted the game of rugby and made Invictus, a big-budget feature film: first-class director, marquee stars. The film focuses on a rugby tournament 15 years ago in a land far, far away. So who really gives a rat’s butt? Why would anybody outside of a few OCD sports cretins expect to be enthralled? Yet they are. Maybe because it’s not a sports flick. Sport is the medium, not the message. The film, in fact, is a colorfully rendered portrait of a pivotal political event in the not-so-distant past.

That it all happened half a world away, failed to capture America’s attention, and revolved around a game barely known here and even less understood, means we could easily have missed the story behind the story. Clint Eastwood’s film gives this historical episode new, and well-deserved, life.

Nelson Mandela lived in a stone-and-concrete cell on a prison island for 18 years. For 18 years he slept on a mat, sat on a stool, and shat in a bucket. And this was more humane than what was inflicted on many of his people under Apartheid. Not to say Mandela had it easy. He spent a further nine years in other prisons. Twenty-seven years for pursuing freedom:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people, I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

In prison, he studied Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But we know now he must also have studied jujitsu. After generations of apartheid, and years of protests, windows opened in South Africa’s corridors of power, and in 1990 Mandela was released from prison. By 1994, after more bloodshed on both sides, South Africa had a new constitution and a new President: Nelson Mandela. Having been locked him away by a white-supremacist system for exactly half his adult life, how did this new leader exact vengeance on those who had stolen his life and persecuted his people for decades? How did he pursue justice? By one of the boldest, most bloodcurdling gambles in the politics of any society. By jujitsu. And with the help of God, luck, history, and a little Jewish guy.Rugby holds sporting sway in South Africa. It has for a century, and for a century was a white man’s preserve. Non-whites were allowed to play-just not with whites. Not at the better schools, at the good clubs, in the “all-star” teams. And certainly not for the Springboks, the national team and sporting pinnacle for white South Africa since the Boer War. So bleached was South African rugby that foreign teams playing there could have only whites on their rosters. Beginning in the 1960s, South Africa, resolved and defiant, was gradually ostracized from international sport.

If South Africa had a colonial sibling, it was New Zealand. Both were extensions of northern Europe, had strong farming economies, and suppressed the natives. Both were rugby bulwarks. In Britain, most rugby players came from the higher economic strata, but New Zealand, as in South Africa, drew its rugby hordes from all classes: farmers and farmworkers, dentists and accountants, civil servants and dockworkers. With one glaring difference: New Zealand’s game has been integrated, Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) playing together, since the 19th Century. To claim Maori blood in your heritage was a bond to the land. This history would evolve one, maybe two, of the great ironies in sport.

The lesser one is the name of the New Zealand national team: the All Blacks, not so called because they exclude Caucasians, but because their uniforms are black.

The greater irony resides in the fact that over the last 100 years no other rugby nations in the world could carry South Africa’s or New Zealand’s jockstrap. No rivalry in the sport is in the “Boks vs. Blacks” orbit-two sweating, bleeding giants running and tackling on the high veldt of the Transvaal or a verdant field in the Antipodes. Yet, for half a century, no non-white New Zealander was allowed to play on South Africa’s turf. For more than 50 years, these two flinty icons, one integrated for a century and one lily-white, had an uneasy truce over racial segregation. This truce was broken, finally, via a series of protests, confrontations, and violent street battles in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s.

By 1995, some of the gulfs in South Africa had been bridged, but not all of them. With a black president and a new constitution, South Africa had been accepted back into the wider world of sport. It was hosting the third Rugby World Cup.

Time for Mandela’s jujitsu. Using a tradition’s weight against itself is not easy. You must have a precise feel for its center of gravity, its balance point, how to get under the moving force and move with it, to throw it to the mat before it knows it’s off its feet. The huge tradition Mandela chose to challenge was the black-white partition in South African rugby. Could he grab the momentum of the World Cup and use it to throw that partition to the ground? Could he use the white man’s sport to step across the abyss?

Mandela came out publicly and forcefully in support of the Springboks. Against the pain of Apartheid’s scars, cutting back against the grain, he campaigned his black people to turn out by the tens of thousands to cheer the country’s, not just the white man’s, team. They did. They followed him. If South Africa won the Cup, blacks would share in the glory, in the victory, in a triumph that meant everything to the small, dominant minority that was white South Africa. If they lost, what price would the country pay, and what price would Mandela pay for mortgaging his position of power in supporting his historical enemy?

Early in the tournament, rugby and history moved Mandela’s way. New Zealand arrived with a racial blend of ferocious players, swamping every team they played. South Africa, too, came out firing and won all their early matches. It looked likely that the two greatest teams in rugby history, one historically white, one historically mixed, would actually meet in the finals. In Mandela’s favor, too, was that the Springboks had slowly begun to integrate. Now was his time-on a world stage, with a TV audience of a billion.

Invictus is the story of this gamble, of this man, and, yes, of rugby. Of how a nation’s team dug deep against a monster opponent, and how a man dug deep against hatred. It was a pivot point, a rattling social explosion when a game-to Americans, an obscure sport full of myths and mayhem-created an opportunity for a political magician to dazzle his people and the world.

Did South Africa win? In every way. See the movie.

So who was the little Jewish guy? His name is Joel Stransky. He was the Springbok fly-half, the equivalent of quarterback. South Africa defeated New Zealand 15-12, and Stransky scored every point for the Springboks. He won the match, the Cup, and Mandela’s gamble with a final, prodigious kick, a 40-yard running drop-goal in injury overtime against the world’s greatest adversary. He had never kicked a drop-goal for South Africa before that day. Think Kobe Bryant at the buzzer; Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth; Joe Namath in the Super Bowl. Mandela and Francois Pienaar (South Africa’s captain and Matt Damon’s character) may have been the men of the hour, but Stransky was the hero of the day.

The sadder but honest post-mortem is that South Africa’s leadership has passed into the hands of far less capable, less compassionate leaders. The day of Mandela’s genius is in the past, and crime and corrupt, even gutter, politics is on the rise. We watch with hope that South Africa will survive and thrive. Rugby needs it.


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