Invictus in the land of the ‘Boks

Early on in the movie “Invictus”, there is a scene when Francois Pienaar’s father sits around and does a cassandra, while looking at the telly and talking generally, on The State of the Nation. His manner is disaparaging, his atitude pessimistic. As he rails and rants against what he sees as the inevitable collapse of the new dispensation in power, Pienaar (played brilliantly by a buffed-up matt damon) looks across at his mom, and they exchange The Glance.

Eyes rolling, and mouthing some inside joke, I imagine that this must have been a look in many households across SA, circa 1994. Mandela had been freed, and what the world saw as a moment of delirious celebration of victory for the forces against imperialism and racist bigotry was often seen very differently in South Africa, where the sudden appearance of black might and white fright turned the tables, and how!

And as older generations railed against the collapse of the world as they knew it, I imagine that younger people perhaps rolled their eyes at their mothers, and moved on with their lives.

In the evolving sensibility of Invictus, decades-old suspicion and mistrust is slowly replaced by interracial secret service camaraderie, hunger is replaced by a love for rugby by poor township boys, and eventually everyone (yes, yes! everyone, even the black xhosa maid!!) goes to see a rugby game where the national team grunts against oversize maori warriors. In a tensely fought final, the entire country stays indoors (white men in raucous pubs, black men in roadside shebeens), and a toothy boy from the townships shares the radio with on-tenterhooks Afrikaans policemen. The national team wins, people cheer madly, and a grinning Morgan Freeman- as- Madiba looks on at the tranformative power of sport.

If only life were so simple. Less than 15 years after the historic triumph, sitting in a darkened theatre in Gateway, Durban, I heard barely-suppressed snickers of derision when the scenes of reconciliation and repair flashed on the screen. The tragedy of South Africa today is that the bitterness is still very much in the air, and maybe as fathers rant, the glances are not even exchanged any more at breakfast tables.

The transforming power of sport is something that many hollywood movies have tried hard to exploit over the years (and succeeded admirably). The image of the last-minute touchdown with the orchestra crashing to a crescendo in the background, and the hero’s muddy face streaked with triumph, amid close up shots of the clock signalling timeout and a field invasion by fans, is legend. Invictus has all of that glory, and greatness.

The captain is a taciturn Afrikaans boy overwhlmed by the humility and greatness of the president. Madiba is a kindly old man : graceful, dignified and astute, charming supporters and critics alike with his simple and powerful philosophy. Even the rugby team, beefcake-bourgeoise before, are attentive anthem-singers after, all smiles and happy grins after Pienaar’s pep-talk. Heck, even the grubby kids from the townships, with the ragged trousers and no shoes, are a toothy crease of joy.

The reality, in today’s SA, is vastly different. In the year of World Cup SA 2010, it’s really pretty evident that sport, like everything else in south africa, has been carved up along racial lines, and distributed: the whites get rugby, the blacks get soccer and the indians get cricket , with the mandatory outliers all round. The coloreds, of course, are too busy hanging around Cape Town and being cool. Sports are only the tip of the iceberg: in a nation poisoned by years of institutional racial identification and prejudice, it takes more than a world cup win to bring the fractured pieces together. Depending on the color of their skins, foreigners will eventually get to be privy to the “South Africa is going to the dogs” dialogue. Everyone is a pocket anthropologist, and crude racial generalisations will be made over the poitjie pot, even as you stand around embarassed, and stammering thanks. Whites and Indians will be the first to moan and groan, even as they drive their fancy cars with super-sensitive alarm systems across the city to their fancy houses in the swankiest parts of town. Black moaning is different, and usually laments the fate that has befallen. And how powerless they are to stop it.

When Madiba talks in the movie of a “Rainbow nation”, and borrows Archbishop Tutu’s term to talk of the glorious multi-culturalism of South Africa, the whole world was charmed and touched. Today, the description seems eerily literal, of a prismatic country bent on splitting white light into its components. Maybe the great man was being  prescient, in his own ruined, tragic way.

Adapted from Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by journalist John Carlin, Invictus is a portrayal of the intimate relationship between sports, pride, honour, and the inner core of decency and fairness that exist at the heart of every person. Some inconsistencies have been noted in the movie (Mandela quoting Invictus and not Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena  speech to Pienaar and the boys, the pile of stones on Robbyn Island that could not have existed in 1994), but the greatest inconsistency is the image of a united, cheering-as-one, proud and integrated South Africa. As we shuffled out of the movie hall, I could not but help noting with a sinking feeling that THAT particular cheer probably lasted barely as long as the credits.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sujatha
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 08:58:05

    Aravind, I read your review of Invictus with interest – partially because it was a personally conducted reality check (and it felt authentic because you are really on the ground, feeling the vibes), and partially because this particular aspect of sociology is of interest to me. (Plus your writing is refreshingly straight-forward this time and very readable, as always. :-))

    You say: “I heard barely-suppressed snickers of derision when the scenes of reconciliation and repair flashed on the screen.”

    Really, was the expression of derision so overt and obvious? Or, are you just being figurative here? Makes a lot of difference in potraying the true picture.

    We lived in Detroit (USA) – a place seemingly with a very similar mix and milieu as SA. Minus the Mandela, of course. I don’t know if that (Mandela factor) makes a difference, but my experience was a _little_ different from what you’ve described above.

    While I generally relate to the sentiments you convey, and my observation of the ‘racial harmony’ facade agrees with yours, there are two major differences:

    1. The white people in Detroit were always very very careful about being politically correct, at least on the outside. In hushed tones and among trusted cliques, they may come out and verbalise their true feelings of white indignation. Still, almost never in public… that’s why I am incredulous.

    2. There actually were several whites, mostly of the middle-aged to young group, who truly, sincerely felt that the Blacks had a real case and empathised with the coloured people’s problems. Some of them, as patriotic as they are otherwise, have even openly admitted to us that the imperial invasion and treatment of the locals (Indians) was outright wrong. There are people of the ‘privileged class’ who have fairness not just in the crevices of their hearts, but are also willing to state it openly.

    No? Not so in SA?

    Otherwise, are you liking it in SA? Marriage is treating you well, one assumes… 🙂



  2. nirvana demon
    Jan 27, 2010 @ 12:47:42

    Hi Sujatha.
    South Africa is vastly different from the US, or for that matter from most former colonies, in 2 important ways: one: the process of racial segregation and prejudice was completely istitutionalised here, covering every aspect of life. and two: the change into democracy has been recnt, only 15 years back, and a largely imperfect process.
    so a lot of people in SA still talk with race as their primary point of departure, and acknowledge and judge people ona racial basis in a way that more politically correct societies would find shocking “she is in charge of the finance: a white girl, but still very helpful…”
    arguably, indians are also bigoted in their worlview, and if not on race, prejudice is happily handed around on the basis of caste, religion, region or socio-economic background.
    yet south africa’s sheer audaciousness regarding race and discrimination is staggering.
    the derisive snorts i heard were real, and only mirrored constantly in conversations with locals.
    the whites despise the blacks and tolerate the indians, the indians resent the whites and despise the blacks, the blacks blame the whites and resent the indians, the coloureds ignore the indians and resent the blacks… and so on and so forth.
    the country is racially cleaved into its component faultlines, and it really is a rainbow nation like i described it. a beautiful nation of people split exactly into their component coloured groups: distinct and discrete.


  3. Kristian Mattias
    Jan 28, 2010 @ 18:23:05

    I was studying something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your perspective on it is diametrically opposed to what I read originally. I am still mulling over the different points of view, but I’m leaning to a great extent toward yours. And irrespective, that’s what is so great about advanced democracy and the marketplace of thoughts online.


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