Emily's Reviews > Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation

Invictus by John Carlin
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bookshelves: meridian, non-fiction

1994 was a critical year for South Africa. A president had been elected by almost two-thirds of voters in the first truly democratic, one-person, one-vote elections the country had ever had. Tensions were simmering just barely under the surface, not infrequently erupting into violent neighborhood rallies, bloody skirmishes, and even assassination. Many of the white Afrikaner minority were worried about reprisals from the black majority, some of whom were undoubtedly eager for revenge or at least eager to see whites “put in their place” after so long in power. Extremist elements from both ends of the spectrum were arming themselves for what they deemed the inevitable civil war that would come. Even among the more moderate South Africans, doubts that a lasting peaceful government could be forged ran rampant.

And then there was Nelson Mandela.

Almost three decades of incarceration might be expected to have a hardening effect on a person, particularly when the initial conviction was unjust. However, Nelson Mandela used his time in prison to come to understand his adversary. He learned to speak Afrikaans, studied Afrikaner history, developed friendships with his Afrikaner jailors, and continued to reach out to the government leaders who had put him in prison. Eventually, this approach not only secured his release from jail and his election to the presidency, but also set his country on a path toward equality and reconciliation.

In the midst of this time of upheaval and radical change, South Africa was also preparing to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Rugby, for those who are as unfamiliar with the sport as I am, is sort of a cross between soccer and American football, but without any pads to cushion the ferocious impacts. Mr. Carlin explains the Afrikaner passion for rugby as “the closest they got, outside church, to a spiritual life” and Mr. Mandela himself once described it as “a religion” for Afrikaners. The black South Africans generally viewed the gold and green uniforms of the Springboks, along with the old national flag and national anthem, as a symbol of the oppression they had suffered under decades of apartheid. For years, they had cheered for whatever team the Springboks were playing against, urging a global boycott on South African rugby while apartheid was still law. And then Mr. Mandela determined that the best possible use for the sport of rugby is as “an instrument of political persuasion [and] reconciliation.”

To this end, Mr. Mandela worked with the disparate elements of South Africa, tirelessly lobbying, inspiring, charming, persuading and cajoling Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaners alike into supporting the Springboks and his vision of South African unity: “One Team, One Country.” He encouraged the more vengeful anti-apartheid activists to soften their stance against the symbols they loathed and to give the country a chance to come together. He convinced General Constand Viljoen, the former overall commander of the South African Defense Force who led a right-wing group determined to take up arms against the new government, to stand down and renounce war. He motivated the almost-completely Afrikaner rugby team to learn the Xhosa words to the new national anthem “Nkosi Sikelele” and sing it and the old national anthem with equal gusto before each match during the tournament. In a triumphant ending worthy of a Hollywood film (which, as a matter of fact, it now is), the underdog Springboks defeated the heavily favored New Zealand All Blacks to win the World Cup and the entire country celebrated rapturously, regardless of color. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained, “That match did for us what speeches of politicians or archbishops could not do. It galvanized us, it made us realize that it was actually possible for us to be on the same side. It said it is actually possible for us to become one nation.”

Mr. Mandela's optimism, charisma, and determination to engage all South Africans in the process of peace and justice prevailed against the fear and suspicions so prevalent at this turbulent time. And the sport of rugby was his instrument of choice in this extraordinary reconciliation.

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Reading Progress

July 5, 2011 – Started Reading
July 5, 2011 – Shelved
July 12, 2011 – Shelved as: meridian
July 12, 2011 – Shelved as: non-fiction
July 12, 2011 – Finished Reading

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