The movie “Invictus” was based upon the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin. This book has just been re-issued in paperback form with a new name, “Invictus”. The rationale for the change is obvious, but it is also a little weird, because I don’t think that Invictus, the poem by William Benley that helped keep Nelson Mandela’s spirits up in prison (“…..I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”) is mentioned anywhere in the book. When you first open the new edition, the poem is there staring you in the face, but with no explanation of why.
OK, putting that aside, I will get to my next point: This is a book that should be read (just like “Invictus” is a movie that should be seen), even if you have seen the film. Yes, it talks about the Springboks victory in the World Cup rugby match against the favored New Zealand All-Blacks, and the remarkable way that black and white South Africa coalesced over the success of this team, previously a symbol of minority white (and more specifically minority Afrikaans) power. But it is much more than that.
Nelson Mandela is clearly an extraordinary (if there is a word stronger than that, I should use it) human being. Arrested and held in prison for 27 years as a militant member of the feared African National Congress, he used his time in prison to learn Afrikaans, befriend his guards, and study the history of South Africa and the psychology of all South African ethnicities. He charmed his jailers (gaolers?), was eventually given very preferential treatment (after years of pain), and learned all about rugby.
Mandela has the capacity to charm and win over everybody (it seems, without exception) he comes into contact with. President Botha, President de Klerk, the head of national security, the head of the Department of Justice, leaders of the Afrikaans resistance. It seems like the more someone is determined to dislike Mandela, not to be wooed by him, to fear him……the harder they fall for him, the stronger their relationship becomes. Yes, a lot of it is orchestrated and planned and thought out well in advance, but there is more to it than that. Mandela really seems to like his enemies, to understand them, to appreciate them, to show them respect. And they respond to him in kind.
The rugby aspect of the story is important, of course. The blacks HATED the Springboks, and rooted for their opponents, even though they didn’t follow rugby or want to follow it. And many blacks were aghast at Mandela’s demand (Mandela’s softest suggestion is in fact a demand, although those who are the targets of the demand would never guess it) that they support the team. It’s not enough, he said, that the white population has their bread; they need their circuses as well, and if we take that from them, we will never win them over.
Justice Bekebeke, now a lawyer and government official, was at one time a frustrated young, poor, black kid whose little hope of a future was abridged even more when he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for participation in a riot in the town of Upington, where a white died, before Mandela’s release. He was adamant about opposing the Springboks and didn’t even want to watch the world cup game. But he was invited by an activist friend to a BBQ at his house to watch the game and he went:
“There were going to be four other couples, themselves included, at the braai (barbeque). The other three men had been in prison with Bekebeke: one of them – Kenneth Khumalo, “Accused Number One” – had been on Death Row with him. This was encouraging news to Bekebeke, sure now that he would not be alone in his doubts about all of this Springbok business, confident that Salina’s (that was his girlfriend) enthusiasm would stand out in the group. She had gone ahead of him to help with the preparations, and so he arrived on his own, at more or less the same time that Mandela was leaving home for the stadium.
“‘I have never been more astonished in all my life’, Bekebeke said. ‘The door opens. I go into the house and what do I see? All seven of them, wearing the green Springbok jersey!'”
There has to be a lesson here. My thoughts go back to Jimmy Carter’s badly titled book, “Peace Not Apartheid”. OK, so the situation in Israel/Palestine is very different from the situation that existed in South Africa. That’s not the point. The point is that one man, one very charismatic man, was able to create a unified government out of warring factions, in a nation where civil war seemed to most an inevitability. And that he did it by taking so many steps that seemed opposite to what would have been the natural thing to do, by creating within himself the ability to react totally differently to circumstances than one would expect, and yes to really like and learn to respect so much about his presumed enemy.
Perhaps Bishop Tutu answered the question best. What is the lesson? The lesson is that if this could happen here and now, it could happen elsewhere and again.
This is a very readable book, and it is a book that demands reading. Is it too much of a hagiography, to fawning on Mandela’s better qualities? Perhaps. It does not go into detail on his family situation, other than to say that it has been the biggest defeat of his life, and it does not dwell on his loneliness, which though is apparent. But there are other biographies that go into such things – this book is the story of a success. And what a success it was.