Saturday, December 19, 2009
Mandela, Invictus and statesmanship
I watched on the opening night Invictus, a Clint Eastwood movie with Morgan Freeman playing the role of one of the greatest men of our time, Nelson Mandela. Although I am an admirer (who is not?) of this great man, I was not sure whether a movie on him could capture my attention for over 2 hours. When the movie ended, I thought I could sit for a re-run. In fact, I regretted that I could not see it a second time straightaway. The movie centered on how Nelson Mandela used the World Cup Rugby held in South Africa in 1995 to help his country win over hate and unite South Africa. In the absence of his statesmanship and vision, South Africa almost surely would have self-destructed itself. When apartheid, the worst system of oppression of a minority group over a majority ever established in human history, fell and Nelson Mandela won the election to become the first Black President of South Africa leading the African National Congress, his followers wanted to settle the scores against the Whites.
Nelson Mandela's vision was different. He knew without unity the end of apartheid would be meaningless and unsuccessful. One of the earlier scenes of the movie showed Nelson Mandela's first day as President. As he walked to his office, the whites at the Presidential Office who worked with his predecessor FW du Klerk under the apartheid system were packing in somber mood, as if the entry of Mandela was a funeral event. As Mandela walked to his office, his Secretary, a black woman, walked into the room with him, carrying a load of papers under her arms, and said to the President that she would need to sit with her for the engagements of the day. Instead Mandela asked her to gather everyone at the President's Office for he wanted to talk to them.
Soon everyone gathered to hear the President; blacks as well as whites. The President came quickly to the point. He told the whites that he was surprised to see them packing to leave. He said that they had the freedom to do so but that he needed them and would want them to stay. His security was then at the hands of his comrades in the ANC. As the security men settled into their room in the President's Office, 4 white security men walked in and handed to the black security chief, who had asked for additional men, a letter signed by Nelson Mandela attaching them to his security team. Surprised and angry, the security chief walked into Mandela's office and politely but firmly wanted to know the reason for appointing to his security, men who had tortured and violated human rights of ANC supporters and coloured people under apartheid. Mandela replied that he could not think of better qualified men for security as those he appointed to his team had the professional knowledge required for the job having worked with his predecessor! He acknowledged his comrade's anger and disappointment but encouraged him to learn to forgive, adding that forgiveness was food for the soul.
Mandela was aware that many of his followers were not ready for forgiveness; inclined more on revenge. He was equally aware that without black and white reconciliation, South Africa would be destroyed. Indeed, South Africa was going that way while negotiations were going on between the white racist government and the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990 having by then served 28 years of imprisonment and torture. Violence continued even after Mandela was elected President in 1994. It was then that he saw a great opportunity in the World Cup Rugby Tournament in South Africa in 1995 to save his country and establish it as a multi-racial democracy.
Rugby was a game for only whites during the apartheid era. The blacks neither watched it nor knew much about the game. In fact, in a scene in the movie, they were cheering the English team against South Africa. Mandela thought if he could motivate South Africa to win the Cup and get the majority blacks to take pride in that victory as South African victory, he would be able to achieve a lot of the reconciliation that he wanted for the future of South Africa. The task was a difficult one, even for Mandela. The first problem was with the name of the team that was known as Springboks. It was a reminder of racism because it was taken from the Afrikaans , the language of the majority whites . The black dominated (in fact the body was exclusively black) sports authority of South Africa wanted to change the name for one acceptable to them and in fact, they unanimously took a vote to do so. When Mandela heard of the vote, he arrived at the meeting and risked his political future to urge the blacks not to change the name that he said would take the pride out of the team and ensure their defeat in the Cup. He managed only 12 votes but underscored his determination to unite the blacks and the whites to back the Springboks as a means to national reconciliation.
Mandela just did not have to convince the blacks. The whites, many still racists, also had to be taken on board, most important of all in the context of Rugby World Cup, the Springboks that included just one black. Mandela went to the team, talked with them, and when he met them in the field during practice, he knew each by name, having made the effort to recognize each from his picture. He most of all took the captain of the team into confidence for which he invited him to his office for tea. While seated in his office, Mandela asked the captain to change seats with him so he did not have to look at the sun coming into the room through the window, reminding audience of his days at Robben Island prison where years of mining under the sun had almost blinded him. The greatness of the man not only motivated the captain; what sunk in him deeper was the ability of Mandela to forgive. Mandela told the captain that there were days during his cruel and inhuman incarceration when he felt like giving up. It was at those dark times that he drew courage from a poem of an English poet, Edward Ernest Henley (1849-1903) that he would read over and over again. Henley was handicapped but he did not let that demoralize his spirit and wrote a short poem Invictus, Latin for unconquered, to underscore his fighting spirit.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from
pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced
nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of
wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror
of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find
It matters not how
strait the gate,
How charged with
punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
In the movie though Mandela was shown giving the captain a copy of Invictus; in real life he gave him an extract from an equally great piece of inspirational writing, Theodore Roosevelt's speech of 1910, The Man in the Arena.
A weak South African Team ended beating the giants of Rugby like the All Blacks of New Zealand and other formidable opponents like England that was totally unexpected. As the Springboks went on the winning spree, the blacks cheered the team with national pride, inculcated in them by their beloved Mandiva, Mandela's tribal name. Mandela was so involved in motivating the Springboks to win the Cup that even when on an overseas trip, he was more focused on the fate of the Springboks than on the issues of negotiation with his hosts. Finally, when a racist white sportscaster told the Captain of the Springboks that he had won the Cup for the 60,000 spectators in the stadium, he said he had won the Cup for 43 million South Africans. Mandela had won the hearts and minds of just not the Springboks; with winning the World Cup, he successfully brought down the wall of hatred between the two races and started the process of reconciliation.
The movie has a great message for a world torn in conflict where even a President like Barak Obama who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize had to order a troop upsurge in Afghanistan that he acknowledged on the TV programme 60 Minutes as the most difficult choice he ever made. Mandela was confronted with greater challenges than many of his contemporaries, Obama included, but he had the statesmanship and the vision to rise over his personal grievances and those of the majority of his people, grievances that were no less motivating for settling by force of power than many being pursued in the contemporary world. Instead he succeeded with forgiveness as an instrument of great human achievement that force and vengeance would not have accomplished. In doing so, he was the real Invictus of Henley's poem. He was as Henley scribed the master of his fate and the captain of my soul. Nelson Mandela left office at the peak of popularity few leaders in history have achieved after one term in office in 1999 to become the conscience of the world.
Published in The Daily Independent, December 20, 2009