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RSA-USA and Invictus beyond the Oscars

Submitted by on March 4, 2010 – 4:59 pm One Comment

What South Africa, Clint Eastward’s movie and Morgan Freeman’s Mandela moment can teach the USA. Ten reasons to see the Oscar-nominated film (with Freeman nominated for Best Actor and Matt Damon for Best Supporting Actor).

By Wanda Hennig

Invictus is the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted and won by South Africa. The movie is a tribute to Nelson Mandela’s vision and leadership — and a lot more. Read an overview of the film’s story on Wikipedia here. Go see it and be inspired. Perhaps it will give you new thoughts and insights on Washington politics and the US health care debate.

10) There’s the rugby. Rugby is to South Africans what ice hockey is to Canadians. A religious experience. Did you know that football, as played in the US, had its origins in rugby? And also in soccer? Read more on this history here. While rugby has a starring role in Invictus and you’ll get an idea of the subtleties, or lack of them, you need to go see the Springboks play live for a real rugby experience. To quote from an expert, South Africa journalist, author and rugby columnist Graham Linscott: “If the rugby sequences were a but hammy — biff! bam! oof! — so what? The movie wasn’t about the technicalities of rugby.”

9) There’s the history. On February 2, 1990, South Africa’s then-state president, F.W. de Klerk, reversed the South African government’s ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations, and announced that Mandela would shortly be released from prison. He was, on February 11, 1990. Mr. Eastwood has masterfully woven some of the most relevant historic events of the time into the first five minute of the movie, including this.

8) And more history. A historic Mandela moment, his first Durban rally (I was there, with my daughter and our toy poodle, among a handful of white), on February 25, 1990, and famous Durban speech. “My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war now!” You get just a glimpse in the movie; a reference to the speech, and to the time. Link to the full speech here. You also get to visit Robben Island and to learn a lot of other things about South Africa, human nature, leadership and those times.

7) There’s attention to detail. Would Mr. Eastwood show my abiding World Cup memory? Remarkably, he did. King’s Park Stadium, Durban, June 17, 1995: South Africa 19 – France 15. The semi-finals, played in driving rain. A vision — is that really happening? Is this the “new” South Africa? Has anything changed? At half-time, a line of women domestic workers are sent onto the sodden grass field with squeegees.

6) And historic snippets from real event woven in, including this one: In this video I found on You Tube, you can see President Mandela as himself and South African singers PJ Powers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing the world cup anthem, “World in Union,” at the World Cup Final — real time coverage, real final, real inspiration for Invictus.

5) There’s the racism. Do people the world over treat domestic workers like they don’t exist? Probably. Remember the Oscar nominee Babel? In Invictus, there’s Matt Damon’s family (South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar’s family) and their relationship with the “invisible” maid.

4) And more racism. In 1994 I interviewed a group of South African musicians who, during apartheid, sought political asylum and came to live in the United States. They told me they had experienced more profound racism in the United States than in South Africa during apartheid. Which is not to excuse or deny apartheid’s atrocities, inhumanity and injustices. But just to say — if you haven’t seen this Clint Eastwood movie, and you have seen other Clint Eastwood movies, why do you think that is? Everybody says Nelson Mandela is their hero, don’t they?

3) There’s Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela. “Who is that floozy with the president?” I wondered, not recognizing the character with him at a party as either Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, or Winnie Mandela. How apt, given Winnie’s widely publicized indiscretions before — and after — her husband’s release from jail. Anyone else got thoughts on this one? (Mandela subsequently married the ever-gracious Graca Machel, the widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel and a long-time advocate for women’s and children’s rights.)

2) There are the inspiring words. Invictus, the film’s title, comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley. Click here to see the full poem with it’s last two lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” In reality, Mandela provided Pienaar with an extract from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 The Man in the Arena speech, not Henley’s Invictus.

1) There are the lingering thoughts and questions. Do others see analogies between Mandela and Obama? Is it because I am South African that I do? “USA’s Mandela moment” is how The Daily News in Durban, South Africa, announced President Obama’s election victory on Wednesday November 5, 2008, under a front page banner that shouted “Obama Takes It” on a striking red, white and blue front page, with stars and stripes resplendent — a United States victory statement in South Africa.

The newspaper’s headline was inspired by a post-election comment from US consul general in Cape Town, Alberta Mayberry. “This is America’s Mandela moment,” she told the reporter.

The next paragraph read: “Obama echoed her (Ms. Mayberry’s) theme in his victory speech beamed across the world — with words echoing South Africa’s own miracle, of reconciliation, of hope, of unity, and his promise that he would serve as president to all Americans, Republican and Democrat, black and white, men and women, rich and poor.”

I have the front page framed and hanging on a wall in my San Francisco Bay Area apartment.

How I have it is: I was in Durban, South Africa, on November 5, 2008, doing a shift on the Sunday Tribune, sister newspaper to The Daily News. Four or five newspapers share the vast open-plan space and everyone gets a copy of each other’s hot-off-the-press “Not For Sale” early editions. I brought mine back as a memento.

Fourteen years earlier — in April 1994 — I was on the Sunday Tribune election team of reporters covering South Africa’s first democratic elections: when South Africans voted in the ANC and Nelson Mandela became president.

For three days, people who had never voted before stood in line for hour upon hour in rural areas; some of the old and infirm wheeled to rural polling booths in wheelbarrows; heat and dust; fears of violence — and the unbelievable fact that violence did not erupt. April 27 is now a public holiday in South Africa: Freedom Day.

That is the preamble to this piece.

While South Africa can hardly be compared to the United States — apples and oranges — it’s not so hard to see comparisons in the focus of the two men elected. Conciliation. Reconciliation. Collaboration. Unity. Human rights.

Mandela was lauded for his efforts. Obama’s opponents malign him, oppose him, vilify him for his commitment to these same values.

Yet, just as the goodwill the world felt for the United States after 9/11 was destroyed by Bush and his henchmen, the goodwill the world felt for the United States after Obama was elected is being destroyed. The destroyers are a strident bunch of white guys and a moose-shooting Barbie who wouldn’t have got the time of day had she been a Susan Boyle. I’m sure you get my drift.

These are people who condone war, pump money into the killing fields, talk about “the American people,” and who don’t care a fig about them. How can you sleep at night, I wonder, if you are voted into a position to make a difference, yet slam universal health care — stall health care reform — and find every excuse you can in your fight to maintain it as a privilege of the rich? Ted Kennedy knew what was right. We all know.

If you ever lived under apartheid or an oppression regime, you will also know that not only the victim of a negative action, but also the perpetrator — even the benign perpetrator — is impacted.

In South Africa there is concept, ubuntu, that roughly translates as humanity toward others, or, the bond that connects all humanity. It manifests as the “I see you” interdependency in the movie Avatar. The “oneness” philosophy of Zen and other schools of Buddhism. Go see Invictus if you haven’t. See what you think. Please share your thoughts and comments.
© Wanda Hennig, 2010

One Comment »

  • Graham says:

    Tour de force! Bravo! There’s no doubt the 1995 Rugby World Cup was a decisive catalyst in shifting South Africa out of its past. I watched the first match (against Australia)at a yacht club. The African staff, who had previously shown no interest whatever in rugby on TV, suddenly were jumping up and down and whooping with delight. The Sowetan newspaper coined the word “Amabokoboko” for Springboks, which they still use. Invictus captured all this perfectly.

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