Rugby united SA

2010-01-15 00:00

LET me be clear, I don’t understand rugby. I have no idea what the players are doing when they run in lines across the field, throwing the ball to each other backwards and charging each other down. Even less, when they thud into each other in a kind of low-slung group hug and make a collective kind of “Ugh” sound. I have studiously avoided the game all my life, so it was, you understand, with considerable reluctance that I agreed to see Invictus with a rugby-mad friend of mine from the United Kingdom.

The start of the film did not bode well. Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison, driving past a groups of white boys playing rugby — the coach, with a thick Afrikaans accent, says words to the effect of “Remember this moment, because nothing is going to be the same after this”. He says this as if he is reading from a cue card. I squirmed in anticipation and settled down for a ghastly experience.

But then the whole thing changed.

One could not help being struck by the way in which Morgan Freeman was made to look so extraordinarily like Mandela. (Wait until he speaks, I thought, ruefully.) He had managed to recreate the walk, the stoop, the mannerisms and then — not without blemish, but pretty damn accurately — the speech of Mandela. My naturally cynical self started to weaken.

Then Matt Damon as rugby captain Francois Pienaar. He looks nothing like him and it took a long while for him to actually do anything besides look handsome and pensive and visionary (Oh, God, I thought, wait until he speaks) and then he did, and he actually got the accent. I was now seriously engaged.

Of course, there were gimmicks. Like the fact that Mandela insisted on going for an early morning walk every day with a minimum of security, like there were real dangers to his life, like the collapse of his marriage, like the white people who looked extremely grim and the black security people who also looked extremely grim. But you know what? The film really does manage to recreate a moment in our history, an instant when Rubicons were crossed and bridges were made, and when people changed their minds about other people.

I was too young to remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I do remember where I was when the 1995 Rugby World Cup was being won. I was in the airport building in Johannesburg. I wasn’t watching the match. I was watching the crowd at the airport. I was completely astonished to see black people completely caught up in the moment. (White people were too, but that was to be expected.) But for that moment we really were a united people, with everyone cheering for the same team.

It was, perhaps, the only time when we have done so. We were not united during the famous election (or any since). We were not united at the inauguration (or any since). I cannot think of any instance, besides this unlikely one, where unity has been seriously considered or freely demonstrated. And when I think about it, the reason it happened was because of the kind of leadership that was shown. Not by any of the political parties. Not by the sports bodies. Not by the churches or shuls or mosques. It was entirely due to the kind of leadership that Mandela displayed.

Invictus captures that leadership, and it is a timely reminder. We are, as I write, exactly five months away from the Fifa 2010 Soccer World Cup. Will this major event have a similar effect on our country? Certainly, the business people (black and white) are slavering in anticipation, the soccer watchers will all have a jolly time, many more white children will be captivated by soccer, and I am pretty sure we will all be able to pat ourselves on the back and proclaim the event “incident free”. But will it add to our character and substance as a nation? That, as before, will depend very largely on the quality of the leadership.

See this movie. It is well worth it. Not least because of the superb acting, but also because of the message it took an American like Clint Eastwood to remind us of.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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