"He can win an election, but can he run a country?"
That's the question posed by a South African newspaper when Nelson Mandela first takes office. Mandela's response? "It’s a legitimate question."
It is 1994, shortly after he is announced the nation’s first democratically elected president. And as he determines how best to balance black South Africans’ hopes with white South Africans’ fears, the country holds its breath. In this post-apartheid republic, housing, food supply, jobs, crime rates and finances are all crises. Civil war is practically a given.
But 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid taught Mandela much. He learned his opposition’s language. Their ways. Their thought processes. And wisdom helps him see that were he to take away what the whites cherish, it would only reinforce the cycle of fear and violence between races. He tells blacks that their enemy is no longer Afrikaners. It is prejudice and an unforgiving spirit.
One of the things white South Africans hold dear is the Springboks, a failing, mostly Afrikaner national rugby team. Though blacks try to tear it down as a hateful sign of apartheid, Mandela boldly embraces it. For him, rugby is a human calculation with political overtones—and with it he gregariously woos whites. Without white allegiance and trust, he knows his new government will certainly fail in its daunting task. And with his eyes on the Rugby World Cup one year away, Mandela sees the team as an opportunity to showcase his emerging country’s talent, personality and strength. He partners with Springbok team captain, François Pienaar, to motivate the team to victory for its country.
With inspiration from "Invictus," a Victorian poem that strengthened him while he was imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela wholeheartedly supports the Boks. In doing so, he and Pienaar manage to begin to spiritually and emotionally bond a violently conflicted state through athletics.
While most sports films have a feel-good fantasy air about them, Invictus is riveted to reality. Mandela did do this. And under his careful, calculated leadership, far more than a sports team was saved from decimation.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial themes. Rather than seeking revenge against white oppressors, Nelson tells blacks, "Take your guns, your knives and your [machetes] and throw them into the sea." He personally sacrifices for his country, working exhausting hours and risking his life to be among the common people. Since he deems his presidential salary far too high ("terrible," he says), he gives part of it to charity.
Mandela’s black and white staff—and citizens in general—come to admire him and his quest for compassion and kinship. Sensing his good-heartedness and skill, Mandela’s staff becomes fiercely supportive. A leader leads by example. And Mandela’s example is worth following.
To show a personal touch, he learns each Springbok member’s name and addresses them warmly. And he sends the Boks on township visitations to promote rugby among black children who grow to love the men and their sport through the relationships. The Boks themselves progress from being a low-ranking, amateurish tangle to world-class athletes capable of beating the No. 1 New Zealand All Blacks.
A Bible verse is written on a church wall, and a charity worker and her assistant say, "God bless you" as they give needy children clothing. South Africa’s national anthem includes the line, "God bless Africa"—and Pienaar tells white teammates who are reluctant to sing the black song that they need to admit they need God’s blessing. He asks a teammate to pray after a victory.
A security officer comments that a crazed fan might "hear God speaking through the radio," telling him to kill Mandela.
"Invictus" contains the lines, "I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul/ … I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."
Pienaar’s girlfriend playfully tries to initiate sex before a World Cup match, but he tells her that abstaining keeps him strong (and angry). Still, they embrace, kiss and fall backwards together out of the shot. (The implication is that they are sleeping together, just not right before the game.)
Women at a dance wear low-cut dresses. Mandela tells a woman he dances with that he almost wishes he was a polygamist, like his father, because she is so beautiful.
Rugby is an aggressive, violent sport, played without the benefit of America’s football pads. We see body slams, tackling, hitting, etc. Two on-field brawls break out between teams.
Under the constant threat of assassination, Mandela and his security team are edgy. Though no violence is ever aimed at him in the film, the continual possibility is mentally draining for his guards.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and four or five s-words. God’s name is misused a couple of times. Other language includes a handful each of "d‑‑‑," "h‑‑‑," and "bloody." Somebody interjects "b-gger."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rugby players drink beer in locker rooms, and their jerseys sport advertising for lager. Stadium billboards market alcohol as well. Fans all over the country are shown congregating at bars and in homes, alcohol in hand as they watch the World Cup.
Drunken spectators are mentioned as potentially dangerous people who might try to assassinate Mandela. When joking with the All Blacks’ owner about wagering a bet, Nelson offers a case of wine if the Boks lose.
Invictus is not truly a sports film. Those unfamiliar with rugby will learn very little about the game. Instead, it uses rugby to get underneath the skin of Nelson Mandela’s presidential examples of courage and compassion.
"Forgiveness liberates the soul," Mandela says. "It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon."
He should know. Forced to do decades of hard labor by Afrikaners, Nelson somehow learned the spiritual importance of pardoning his persecutors. Pienaar, after visiting Mandela’s Spartan Robben Island cell, wonders "how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there."
It is indeed Mandela’s significant sense of mercy that has amazed the entire world. Director Clint Eastwood says, "I’m not religious, but it takes someone of superior morality to behave as he did. Christ said, ’Forgive these people for they know not what they do.’ Mandela literally was doing the same thing."
Two years ago I spent several weeks in South Africa and was amazed by the country’s diversity of landscape, depth of beauty and richness of culture. And from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the one man I heard most about was former president Nelson Mandela. He seems to have reached a saintly status among many South Africans. And though he is far from actually being a saint, he has nonetheless overcome overwhelming obstacles—for himself and for his people.
From what I have experienced and observed, the origins of racism are fear, false superiority and resentment. It’s easy for any of us to let these seeds of discontent grow in our minds and hearts. Mandela taught people to reject them. And he and Pienaar inspired a team—and their country—to be greater than they believed they were.
The Springbok’s 1995 World Cup win united South Africa as no other event had ever done—or has done since. Eastwood’s film about it comes very close to doing it full justice.