The other night I decided to watch Invictus, a movie about Nelson Mandela’s succession to South Africa’s presidency. It also dealt with how he used rugby to bring his fractured nation together. Here’s a somewhat brief run down.

It’s the year 1994, South Africa is in a state of near civil war. After years of apartheid and antipathy between White and Black South Africans, Nelson Mandela was released after nearly 30 years in prison. He inherits a situation where radical members of the Black ANC and White reactionaries threaten to launch a war out of fear and retribution. To avert this he preaches a system based on reconciliation and forgiveness. To make the system of Ubuntu (oneness) work he needed to find a symbol that both peoples could get behind. This was where the South African National rugby team came in.

Before the Rugby World Cup  Mandela brought the team captain, Francois Pienaar, to the presidential palace. What was actually discussed between the two is still up for debate. Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela in the film posed the question to Matt Damon’s Pienaar: Where does inspiration come from? The two agree that inspiration is partially set by example. Pienaar relates an example of when his teammates are silent before the ride to matches and focused on working up their individual courage, he plays relevant music to help his team.  Mandela went through prison with the words of  William Ernest Henley to give him hope. The films namesake comes from the poem “Invictus”. It reads:

“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 or 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 straight the gate,

how charged the punishments of the scroll,

I am the Master of my Fate:

I am the Captain of my Soul.”

The young Pienaar took these words to heart and often recited it to his team. After a grueling 1995 season, including competing against the champion team New Zealand, they won and South Africa made the transition from a divided society to a progressive Republic. In regards to this scene in the film I’ve drawn my own conclusion.

The message Mandela conveyed through these words were that to inspire ourselves we must exceed our own expectations; whether it is, in the case of the two men, ninety minutes on a sports field or thirty years in prison. Time is irrelevant to the attainment of hopes and dreams.


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