Monday, February 15, 2010
In 1994, Nelson Mandela ascended to the Presidency of South Africa. In a stunning turn-about, the Afrikaner government officially rescinded the myriad laws of apartheid. F. W. de Klerk stepped down. Not many predicted success. As Dutch and Huguenots relinquished a tight fisted grip on a white-over-black government, the man who had been held prisoner for twenty-seven years stepped into the Presidential office. He took the reins of power, and the world watched with considerable skepticism.
Racism in South Africa had been a brutal, centuries old reality.
The nation braced for reprisals and revenge as the black majority gained control of the state institutions – education, law enforcement, military, taxation, tariffs; the harbors and interstate highways and railroad rights of way and infrastructure maintenance. Fear gripped the white minority. Rage seethed barely beneath the surface over a political process that called democracy’s bluff.
Who would have thought that a rugby match could unite a divided nation? How could a fledgling band of also-rans emerge as victors in the World Cup?
We get something of a hint from this most recent Super Bowl. Most every prognosticator gave the odds to the Indianapolis Colts and their veteran quarterback, Peyton Manning. Students of the game pointed to his superior experience and leadership skill. Certainly the Colts would win the biggest football game of the year.
But not so fast. The sentimental favorite would be the New Orleans Saints. We all watched the devastation of Katrina’s fury. If we didn’t go ourselves, we know someone who traveled there to assist in the monumental cleanup. We wondered if Bourbon Street would ever again come alive to that distinct brand of jazz that made the French Quarter a perpetual celebration. In years past, the Saints came close, but had never once appeared in the Super Bowl, much less took home a victory.
The Saints came marching in a couple weeks ago. They came to win. When Drew Brees teared up while holding his one-year-old son Baylen, who wore a headset deigned to protect him from the ear-shattering noise, it was a picture of hope. The city itself emerged victorious in the glow of a Super Bowl win. And even those Peyton Manning fans had to acknowledge it – a victory to savor. It brought healing and belief to millions.
Fifteen years ago, François Pienaar assumed that the Mendela victory most probably signaled the end of the good life in South Africa, and perhaps the end of professional rugby altogether. When the call from the new President’s office came, Pienaar didn’t know what to say. As captain of South Africa’s Springbok team, he felt torn. It was an honor to be summoned by his country’s President. But, for his people, this President represented defeat – a threat to everything he valued. Over his own reservations, he responded to the call, and traveled to the Presidential suite.
Mandela had a challenge with his own supporters. They were determined to outlaw the game they considered to be a symbol of suppression and separatism. He personally blocked their efforts.
In the office of the President, one on one, Mandela challenged the Rugby captain. He spoke of leadership. The wisdom came from twenty-seven years of harsh imprisonment and dreaming of a world that was not but should be. He quoted the words that nourished him during hard days of labor and confinement; the words of William Ernest Henley. Invictus. Henley’s phrase, “my unconquerable soul” got him.In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.
François Pienaar expected to be informed that his sport would be eliminated from South African life. Instead, the new President affirmed his role as a shaper of destinies. Mandela knew that this rag-tag rough and tumble collection of athletes could pull the nation together like no one else could. He challenged the captain to go after the World Cup.
It is a true story. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus opens the window on Mandela’s first tumultuous year as unlikely President. Mandela is played by the legendary Morgan Freeman; Pienaar by Matt Damon. The new President’s improbable support of Pienaar’s team, the introduction of a black athlete to the formerly all white squad, and then, the fabled victory against all odds, tells the story of how victory on that playing field in the stadium and can tear down the walls that divide a nation.
In 1995, stunning a watching world, the South African Springboks defeated heavily favored New Zealand before their home crowd. They took the World Cup.
As the integrated crowd roared, Mandela handed Peinaar the prize. The first year Chief of State would become a beloved President, recognized and respected around the world.
And now, we settle in for the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
We will be a witness to more of the same.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp