On Invictus (2009)

Posted: December 16, 2009 in Binoy Kampmark
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Invictus: Dreams and Realities
Column: Binoy Kampmark

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul
William Ernest Henley, ‘Invictus’ (1875)

When the Springboks, South Africa’s famed rugby team, returned to the international fold after decades of isolation, suggestions were made to change the name. Drop the label and jersey, went the cry, those hated symbols and reminders of apartheid. Embrace, instead, the emblem of the floral protea. But the Boks were spared by the sagacious and calculating President Nelson Mandela. A traumatized nation had to be healed, and rugby might well assist in that enterprise. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, based on John Carlin’s account in Playing the Enemy, is a narration on the subject.

A school of opinion exists that sport and politics just don’t mix. In truth, they tend to be more like Siamese twins. South Africa’s sporting ambassadors were forced into exile precisely because of international political attitudes. Aggressive bowling tactics by the English cricket team in the Australian summer of 1932-3 almost precipitated a diplomatic crisis. In 2006, an Australian umpire’s decision to charge the Pakistani cricketing side with ball tampering caught the eye of General Pervez Musharraf and the country’s Supreme Court Bar Association. And, if we are to take the premise of Invictus to be true, sport can be used to initiate rites of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The name of the film derives from a poem by the tubercular William Ernest Henley, written in 1875 from his sickbed. A rough translation of the Latin is ‘unconquerable’. It is not the first time Henley’s poem has reached a public arena. The condemned Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh issued a handwritten copy of the poem to his prison warden, Harley Lappin, before his execution in May 2001. But while McVeigh did use that poem, Mandela, in giving his morsel of inspiration to Pienaar prior to the tournament, preferred Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘The Man in the Arena’, a speech delivered in 1910.

The film has run into the odd hiccup on route to the box office. South Africa’s actors, precious as they are about their historical idols, have felt spurned by Hollywood’s intrusion. The Creative Worker’s Union (CWU) of South Africa did their best to prevent Freeman from being cast. Florence Masebe’s lament, as reported in the Guardian (Dec 7), was almost sorrowful: ‘Why do Americans and foreigners play the roles we hold so dear?’ Perhaps, because these roles transcend the cages of identity they would otherwise have been put in.

There are times, between the hackneyed aspirations and more than occasional cliché, when you want to be moved: the minute prison cell, the rough blankets, a restricted view out onto the place of penal labour where Mandela toiled for 27 years. Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, and Mandela, played by a well-studied Freeman, provide audiences with the necessary rites of forgiveness. Historically, seeing Mandela in the Springbok jersey, paying tribute to a sport historically hated by blacks, was remarkable. The film does much to convey that moment, including the disagreements voiced by black politicians at such a gesture.

In terms of legacy, there is much more to be done. The gesture, and the approach, may well have unified the nation for the duration of a tournament. There was little doubt of this at the World Cup Final in 1995, when South Africa triumphed over their more fancied New Zealand opponents. Deputy Chief Executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations Frans Cronje had a simple observation: ‘The [rugby] team still looks like it did in 1994. Is that a problem? I don’t know’ (Guardian, Dec 7). The dribbling ball, rather than the running ball, remains the more common feature in the townships. That said, barriers are there to be torn down, and what looked inconceivable in 1994 has now become probable.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University. Email: bkampmark — at — gmail.com

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