Sunday, May 15, 2011


Movie poster courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment, Revelations Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures
I came to South Africa to serve with Peace Corps in 2009 and the country was already very excited about World Cup Soccer to be hosted in South Africa in 2010 with soccer teams competing from all over the world. I’m not a sports fan, but the excitement for the upcoming soccer competitions was contagious—you couldn’t go anywhere in South Africa and not hear about the upcoming World Cup games. South Africa hosted one big party from June through the end of July, 2010.

Also in 2009, the year I came to South Africa, a film about the South African World Cup Rugby games hosted in South Africa in 1995, Invictus, was released in the United States and starred Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The film was based on John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, that recounts Mandela’s political strategy of using a national sport—rugby—to unify a newly democratic South Africa in 1995.

Please note the difference: 1995 was a rugby match and 2010 was a soccer match—this distinction has racial implications for South Africa.

The film’s title, Invictus, is also the title of a poem written by English poet, William Earnest Henley, a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela while in prison and in a way he hoped to pass along to the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar. Translated from Latin, “invictus” means “undefeated” or “unconquered” and the film uses the poem as a core theme.

If you watch the film, Invictus, you will see a lot of the South Africa I see and live in, and you will be under the impression that at that one moment in time, when the South African Springboks defeated the New Zealand All-Blacks in that famous game in 1995, that the racial tensions in South Africa at the end of apartheid were completely healed thus culminating in “the Rainbow Nation.” I too, came to South Africa, under the impression that Mandela had done great things and that South Africa was truly a diverse and happily homogeneous—but racially diverse-- population, an impression that I was saddened to learn very quickly that does not exist, at least it does not exist among the South Africans that I live with. When I first arrived in SA, not understanding much about sports and soccer, I was asking a white South African about the World Cup Soccer and was told that white South Africans enjoy rugby while black South Africans enjoy soccer. (A “joke” in regards to this reference is made in the movie.)

I was also struck with how the black South African college kids that I lived with were outraged that an American actor, Morgan Freeman, was cast as their beloved Nelson Mandela. I told them that of course, it was an American made movie and that the movie makers were mostly interested in making money. But it saddened me to see how this one casting choice stood as yet another example of American imperialism: we’ll choose an American actor to play a famous South African leader.

Here are some general impressions that I came away with after watching the film:
• In the opening shot, you will see two schools: a white school and a black school. The white school children are impeccably dressed in smart uniforms, are attending a fine school, are practicing rugby, and are playing on grass. The black school children, on the other hand, are dressed in street clothes, are attending a modest school, are practicing soccer, and are playing on dirt. This opening shot, I believe, best represents the racial divisions that I still see in South Africa today. The two schools are divided by a road that Mandela’s entourage will travel and you will see the black children excited at Mandela’s passing and the white children observing with contempt. The white coach advises his team to “remember this day when our country went to the dogs.” Sadly, I still see these attitudes in the South Africa today.

Also, the family’s attitude of the white South African rugby team captain, François Pienaar, especially the father’s comments, mirror those of what I still see in white South Africans today, that “they (black South Africans) will take our jobs and drive us into the sea.”

• In the film, you will see wonderful aerial shots of Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park, where I spent Christmas holiday, 2010. Also, the South African rugby team trains in Cape Town throughout the film and there are lovely shots of Table Mountain against the backdrop of the city. These are the same views I experienced while in Cape Town, and yes, the city and the mountains are truly this beautiful.

• The film opens with the South African song, “Shosholoza,” and we, as Peace Corps volunteers were taught on our arrival in-country. The song was used controversially in the past by black South Africans as a show of solidarity in defiance of the apartheid government. Mandela speaks of singing the song with other prisoners while during his imprisonment on Robben Island. The song has since become a source of national pride and you will often hear it at sporting events and other national competitions.

• Many of the shots of Mandela as a statesman are at the Pretoria Union Buildings that I recently visited. Yes, these buildings are this grand and beautiful and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to be in that crowd and hear the great Nelson Mandela at the fall of the apartheid era.

• In the film, we see Mandela residing in a “fortress-like” home with high security measures in place. This is how I see all white South Africans living in the South Africa of today: all of their homes are fortresses.

• Mandela was a brilliant political strategist, something you get a much better idea of in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation (on which the film is based) and in my reading about him, I find myself comparing to Mandela to Abraham Lincoln in thinking about how these men were simply brilliant in their political strategies. When Mandela won the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the white South African Afrikaners hated black South Africans and vice versa, and this hatred had raged for 50 years. You get a sense of this hatred in the film when the police force, both newly-appointed members and members of the old regime are forced to work together at Mandela’s request: these racial tensions in the film are depicted as very, very high. (Also an attitude that I’m sad to report exists still today.)

What was brilliant about Mandela, is he knew that to undermine the racial hatred in his country was to approach the white South Africans, the Afrikaners, with their language, their history, and their culture. Mandela spent many of his years in prison learning everything he could about Afrikaners, and was especially careful to learn the Afrikaaner language.

Because Invictus is an American-made film, the actors are speaking in English and we lose the significance of the impact of Nelson Mandela speaking Afrikaans to every white South African he encountered and the impression that made. Therefore, in the scenes we see with Mandela and the Springbok’s captain, François Pienaar, they are speaking in English. In reality, Mandela would have been speaking to Pienaar in Afrikaans, not in English.

• There is also a shot in the film that juxtaposes the white reality of a white South African farm, a large, spacious, well-established house surrounded in an abundance of gorgeous landscape against the black reality of a crowded and poverty-stricken township: we see the sun rising over a “city” of tin shacks, where people live on top of each other. I see this as very much a stark reality in the South Africa of today, that the white South Africans are still in the role of the “haves” and black South Africans are still oppressed and limited in their roles of the “have nots.” Also, in the shots of the townships, you will see the donkey carts, street vendors, and street markets that are common in my village and shopping town. In several shots of the movie, you can see vendors selling their wares on busy streets, something along the lines of having people selling things on the side of I-65 in America, and yes, this actually happens in South Africa.

• In the film, you will see black South African women in roles of domestic servants (still a large reality today); notice their clothing of the drab fabric you frequently see black South African women wearing today. The cloth is still the least expensive of any cloth you can buy in the shops and is still the primary cloth used in “traditional” black South African fashions.

• The first rugby match in the film is played in Loftus Stadium in Pretoria. I have visited this stadium a couple of times: there is a restaurant inside that you can sit, and eat, and watch the teams practice. The rugby match of the World Cup match is played in Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. I have not seen this stadium.

• At one point in the film, you see black South Africans being “led” by a choir in singing the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Black South Africans would never, ever need a choir to lead them in song; furthermore, the spontaneous singing of black South Africans is much more beautiful than that depicted in the film.

• Something fun to watch for: Clint Eastwood, the director of the film, cast one of his sons, who looks just like him, as one of the Springbok rugby team players. See if you can spot him. Also, Matt Damon is cast as François Pienaar, the white South African rugby captain of the Springboks. Mr. Damon is fine in the role but he is an American actor cast with true South African rugby players. If you’ll notice Mr. Damon’s physique when compared to the other rugby players, Mr. Damon is shockingly smaller than the sportsmen.  Rugby players are giants, literally and in every way.

• At one point in the film, the rugby players tour Robben Island and the infamous prison where Mandela served most of his 27 years in prison. Yes, the prison cell in the film depicted as Mandela’s is indeed, the actual prison cell of Nelson Mandela. In the film, the “tour guide” is a white South African. However, I’m told that former inmates of the prison on Robben Island currently serve as tour guides—black South Africans and former inmates—and that these tours are not to be missed.

• Notice that the crews sweeping a rain-soaked rugby field are black South African women.

• The Pienaar’s black South African domestic servant is invited to attend the World Cup match. Watch for her to do the famous cry of black South African women: “Lee, lee, lee, lee!” I have been practicing this cry and am not very good at it, but hope to be able to demonstrate it for you when I come home.

• During the famous match, the film depicts black South African’s watching the match on TV in a liquor store: Zuki’s Liquor Store. You see these kinds of stores all over South Africa and they are made secure by the walls of metal grating that you see in the scenes. I have to say too, that the black South Africans watching the match on TV in the film are much more sedate and subdued than I imagine they would have been. I have never seen a group of black South African men gathered together and being quiet.

• In the film, you get a sense of the reluctance of the white South African rugby team to learn the new South African anthem: Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. In the book, you get a much better idea of how the team’s learning of the song and then singing it publically impacted the nation. Also, the fact that Nelson Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and cap at the match was a very, very controversial gesture and you don’t quite grasp the significance of it by watching the film only—it’s better understood by reading the book. The Springboks as a team and especially the colors of their uniforms were strongly representative—to black South Africans—of the apartheid government and its brutality for a very long time.

• One of my favorite parts of the film is the closing credits: Mr. Eastwood has included actual photographs of the winning Springbok 1995 rugby team, so you get to see pictures of François Pienaar and his teammates during the world-famous match. It gave me cold chills to see them.

Again, the movie closes and gives the impression that black and white South Africans were united as one nation that day in love and kinship. This is the impression I hoped to see and experience in my two years in South Africa. I’m very sad to say, however, that the racial relations I have observed between white and black South Africans is hardly loving and kind.


  1. Wow Karen, extremely well reviewed! Makes me want to see it.

  2. Great review! I'm coming to South Africa in the group arriving in July -- I haven't watched the film yet, but I'm going to do so today. It's useful to hear your thoughts on it now. I'll also check out the book!

  3. My host family said it was a day and time of unity in South Africa and that that time lasted for several months. Suzette and Peter and Alan, all Afrikaaners, agreed. It was a time of joy and unity and it lasted for several months. I think that experience is wonderful, just think what they had to overcome to achieve such a feeling of National pride. I think, as nations go, South Africa is doing really well when you consider it has been a mere 16 years since the end of Apartheid. In the USA it has been over 200 years since the civil war and we still have racism. Give peace a chance. B

  4. Wonderful review Karen. Will have to re-read after seeing the movie. It was interesting when I was in Ethiopia, I felt safer in the streets than most places in the US. Africa is such a huge continent, with such diversity, and so much for us to learn from

  5. You are one lucky girl, Kaye! After I watched the film, the thought of going to Africa to see the exact and real locations entered my mind. It is good to know that some of the places are still present today.

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