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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela—Invictus

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, left, presents captain of the South Africa rugby union team Francois Pienaar with the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy, after the Springboks defeated rugby powerhouse New Zealand in the final.

By now, after the death of Nelson Rolihlahla “Madiba” Mandela, one of the most influential people to have lived this last century, in the same company as only Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi, everyone knows the meaning of Invictus, taken from the 19th-century poem by William Earnest Henley. 


The word means unconquerable, undefeated and will always be associated with politics and sport. 


For Madiba, that word meant much more, including especially forgiveness, rehabilitation and reconciliation for, and with, all of his enemies, and those who may have harmed him, physically, mentally and emotionally, during the 27 years he was in that prison at Robben Island, just off Cape Town.


The irony of Gandhi and Mandela being closely associated should not be lost. 


They both became lawyers but practised forgiveness, not the sometimes perceived vindictiveness of that profession. They should have been vindictive, given the treatment meted out to them by their own countrymen. 


But Gandhi and Mandela will always be greater than that!


Both also got their political starts in the Republic of South Africa (RSA), before Gandhi went back to try, succeeding but not in the way he had hoped, to liberate his native India from the British Empire, while Mandela, trying to do the same thing for RSA, to free it from the Dutch-influenced Boers, went to jail.


Invictus is director Clint Eastwood’s brilliant 2009 film biopic of Mandela’s influence on the RSA’s rugby team and its eventual, extremely unexpected win of 1995 Rugby World Cup. 


When I first saw the film, which won several Academy Awards, on a flight from London to Miami, I was convinced that it is the most influential sporting film that I had ever seen. 


Yes, I had played a good part in Fire in Babylon, that film about West Indies conquests in the 1970s/1980s, and I have also seen Senna, the biopic of the stunning Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna but, unlike those two, Invictus, the film, is not about the actual players of the games at all. 


It is about the man, South Africa’s president by then, Nelson Mandela, who influenced RSA’s national rugby team to do the impossible and in the process, united a dangerously fractured country, by beating rugby powerhouses Australia and New Zealand, expected finalists, on the way to 1995 Rugby World Cup.


Both Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and Matt Damon, who played RSA’s “Springboks” 1995 rugby captain Francois Pienaar, acted out of their skins, literally, one representing the new direction that RSA had to take, for its very survival, the other representing one of the traditions of South Africa’s sports. 


The most poignant part of the film.


After Pienaar (Damon) had completed his invited, unexpected visit to see President Mandela (Freeman), and was being driven home, he remarked, incredulously to his female companion, when asked as to how the visit went, and how the president really was: “I think that he wants us to win the World Cup!”


That is real influence, to make anyone, an entire team, even a country, do the impossible!


In real life and in the film, the bonding chemistry of these two people was amazing. 


When Pienaar received that trophy from Mandela, who was clad in one of Pienaar’s actual Springboks jerseys, and a baseball-type RSA cap presented to him by the team, the RSA was reborn to the sports world. 


Talk about seizing the opportunity, timing is everything. 


Mandela used that exact sporting event in a sport that did not include many blacks or coloureds, to unite a nation—the Rainbow Nation. 


That world rugby championship win in 1995, coming so soon after Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, was the catalyst that everyone in RSA needed, that characteristic ethos of national rebuilding and reconciliation that the country required at that exact moment. 


In my several trips to RSA, the most beautiful country I have seen, I have not been fortunate enough to meet “Madiba,” but I have had direct contact; still keep those; with members of his family, including his former wife, Winnie, knowing one of his daughters, Zindzi, and two granddaughters. 


I have also visited Mandela’s prison, and cell, at Robben Island.


In passing, great kudos to Prime Minister of T&T Kamla Persad-Bissessar for insisting and ensuring that everyone in T&T’s Parliament saw the film, after Mandela’s death, before herself leading a T&T bipartisan delegation to Madiba’s funeral; a magnificent reconciliatory gesture! 


Conversely, disappointingly, Guyana’s response was unbelievably poor, given similar demographics of having a majority population of people of East Indian descent. 


Former Guyana president Cheddi Bharrat Jagan, himself a great revolutionary, must be turning, crying even, in his grave.


How could Guyana’s political authorities, including its president Donald Ramoutar, whose ancestors, like Bissessar’s, are of East Indian origin, not appreciate or understand that they should have done more, at least attend today’s funeral too, to also represent the massive Indian diaspora that includes Durban, RSA. 


Hopefully, Zindzi’s suggestion, in memory of her father, for all ages, forever, would eventually be heeded. 


One massive word—“Forgiveness!” Enjoy!


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