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Invictus - Forgiveness starts here….

By David Hore, C.Ss.R.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole.
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul’
- William Ernest Henley

Invictus (2009)
Screenplay by Anthony Peckham
Directed by Clint Eastwood

South Africa RugbyClint Eastwood’s 2009 film, “Invictus” (Latin, “Unconquered”), stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the national rugby union team.  The film is based on John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that changed a Nation”.

The movie begins with a story of two sporting fields.  On one side of a narrow road lies a barren patch of scrub where thin black children run around playing football.  On the other side and on a green manicured field, fit and healthy white boys play rugby, coached by a fierce taskmaster.  Africans and Afrikaners – two tribes divided over an oval ball!

Nelson Mandela, who was released from Robben Island in 1990 after 27 years behind bars in a tiny cell, is elected President in 1994 with a massive majority.  His people are hungry for revenge and to the still-powerful white minority they want to show who’s now in charge. 

But Mandela knows the danger of confirming people’s race-based fears, so his chief goal is to “balance black aspirations with white fears”.  Though apartheid is no longer, the racial disconnect between the black majority of the population and their former oppressors remain as entrenched as ever.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others
- Nelson Mandela

Nelson MandelaIt is trust not payback that Mandela wants and one way to earn it is to get behind the country’s national rugby union team – The Springboks.  It’s a risky strategy.  He knows that the team’s green and gold jersey represents apartheid in the eyes of most people.  Mandela himself admits that when he was a prisoner, “we used to cheer for anyone but the ‘Boks”.

When a meeting of the African National Congress unanimously votes to discard the Springbok brand, in a gesture of defiance against the old regime Mandela arrives unannounced to counsel caution, respect and hardest of all forgiveness. 

“Forgiveness starts here…Forgiveness liberates the soul… It removes fear that is why it is such a powerful weapon…The past is the past, we look to the future”.

Throughout his years in prison, Mandela studied the Afrikaners.  He learned their language and came to understand the important role that sport, especially rugby union, plays in their lives. 

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart
- Nelson Mandela

He realises that the game has a deeper meaning “off the field” with the potential to bring a unifying effect on a divided people.  He identifies the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a crucial opportunity.

The event is to be hosted in South Africa, and its poorly performing national team, notoriously unpopular with blacks, is expected to be bundled out in the early rounds. 

So Mandela meets struggling Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar to discuss leadership strategy and to explain the importance of using the team to help heal the nation.  Mandela writes out a copy of “Invictus” for the Springbok captain.  It is the same poem by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) that inspired Mandela in prison to be invincible. 

Henley had lived an impoverished childhood.  At age 12, he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis and by 16, his left leg was amputated just below his knee.  This was just the beginning of life in which he endured much hardship and suffering.  It was in Edinburgh in 1872 where he wrote his “In Hospital” collection of poetry, which gives birth to “Invictus”.

                                                  Out of the night that covers me,
                                                  Black as the pit from pole to pole.
                                                  I thank whatever gods may be,
                                                  For my unconquerable soul.

                                                  In the fell clutch of circumstance,
                                                  I have not winced nor cried aloud.
                                                  Under the bludgeonings of chance,
                                                  My head is bloody, but unbowed.

                                                  Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
                                                  Looms but the horror of the shade.
                                                  And yet the menace of the years,
                                                  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

                                                  It matters not how strait the gate,
                                                  How charged with punishments the scroll.
                                                  I am the master of my fate:
                                                  I am the captain of my soul.

This is rousing stuff that lifts Pienaar to new levels of resolve, despite many recent humiliating international defeats.  He even tries to persuade his players to sing along to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrica” the new national anthem.  But some of the old guard in his team dismiss it as a terrorist song.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrica” was composed in 1987 by Enoch Sontonga.  The words of the first stanza were originally written in Xhosa as a hymn.  In 1927, seven additional Xhosa stanzas were included by Samuel Mqhayi, a poet.  For decades it was regarded as the national anthem by the oppressed and sung as an act of defiance against the apartheid regime. 

On 20 April 1994 a proclamation stipulated that “Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrica and “Die Stem” (Call of South Africa) would be the national anthems of South Africa.

In 1996 a shortened combined version of the two was released as a new anthem. A common English translation of the first stanza and chorus of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrica” is:

                                                  Lord, bless Africa. 
                                                  May her spirit rise high up.
                                                  Hear thou our prayers.
                                                  Lord, bless us.
                                                  Descend, O Holy Spirit.
                                                  Lord, bless us Your Family. 

Mandela continually urges the Springbok captain Pienaar to remember what a successful performance by the team could achieve both inside and outside South Africa.  “This country is hungry for greatness.”  Pienaar declares to his wife, “He (Mandela) is the greatest man I’ve ever met.”

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner- Nelson Mandel

The 1995 Rugby World Cup final against the New Zealand All Blacks and their unstoppable winger, Jonah Lomu, becomes a memorable upset in sporting history.

It is genuinely moving to see blacks and whites during the final game cheering and chanting together as one and embracing the possibility of a new way of being people together.

Mandela uses the Springboks brilliantly to carry his country forward from divisiveness toward healing and forgiveness.  He harnesses the power of hope and collective endeavour.  He bravely re-badges the Springbok team from an emblem of apartheid to a symbol of the new South Africa.

The film overlooks what continues to fuel South Africa’s racial tensions today. On the other hand it tries to show its audience:

  • that revenge is destructive;
  • that people have a life-long need for forgiveness, reconciliation and healing;
  • that there is redemptive power in the acceptance of others;
  • that it is important for humanity to strive for a renewed world.

With its messages of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing, “Invictus” is a movie for our world and for the human family.  In their courageous and unifying leadership and their commitment to justice, Mandela and Pienaar are shown to be wonderful examples for humanity. A world that does not believe in redemption and the opportunity for a new beginning is a world without hope.

We pray,

Lord, bless us your family; send your Holy Spirit.
- From “Nkosi Sikelel’ iafrica”, National Anthem of South Africa

Stories behind the movie

The following videos highlight just some of the events that occasioned Invictus