Roy Anker

Rugby and Reconciliation

Clint Eastwood's Invictus.

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Still, whatever his personal magnetism, Mandela cannot meet individually with the whole of a divided South Africa. With that recognition comes the potential of sport in general and rugby in particular. Mandela gets it in his head that one way of uniting the country would be to find something that all South Africans could cheer. Hence, South Africa's national rugby team should win the World Cup. The problem with that scheme is that, one, the national team is a very clear underdog (the film overplays this), especially against a massive and potent New Zealand team; two, rugby is really a white person's sport, particularly beloved by ardent supporters of apartheid, a condition aggravated by a long apartheid-induced international ban on South Africa, whereas black South Africans vastly prefer soccer, scorning rugby as an emblem of white control; and three, the Springboks, the national team, has only one black player and also proudly wears colors associated with white domination. How Mandela, and finally the team itself, manage to overcome these assorted obstacles makes the substance of the tale.

And rousing it is, though it would no doubt seem corny and preposterous if it were not all true. The film version chiefly emphasizes Mandela's role in these events as opposed to the team's efforts, though those are very much inspired by Mandela's personal care for a team largely consisting of non-political brawler types. Mandela befriends the team captain, Francois Pienaar (quietly played by Matt Damon), and he makes efforts to know the team and to introduce rugby and the team to black South Africans. Moreover, Mandela confronts the deep-down hostility of black South Africans for his support of the Springboks, which he shows by arguing that the team should keep both its name and its green-and-gold jerseys.

Lo, it does work, Eastwood providing, perhaps a bit too often, obvious instances of black and white coming round to rally enthusiasm for the Springboks. But that was apparently just the way it happened. In all of this, viewers witness Mandela's elegant combination of guile, hope, and care working its wondrous way. Of course, the team's own prodigious efforts have a lot to do with that unimaginable display of support; this is, after all, their return to international competition after the long ban for apartheid. Most of all, though, we witness the mysterious, deeply healing power of sport, even with so brutal a sport as rugby—football without the pads, played skin to skin, shoulder to sweaty buttock.

All of that is very strange, and—despite a flood of monographs, dissertations, and scholarly articles—we haven't gotten very far in understanding why and how for player and fan alike sport does what it does. Striving for a kind of "thick description" of how cultures function and persist, anthropologist Clifford Geertz construed notions of "deep play," games and rituals wherein people "tell themselves about themselves," and much of what Geertz argues about cohesion explains a good deal about Mandela's gamble on rugby in South Africa. Still, imponderables remain: from whence does this bent come, and what story does sport at its deepest tell? For fans, as in Invictus, sport unites stalwart adversaries, Afrikaner and African, in support of some transcendent something beyond themselves. Frankly, that this should happen does not make much sense, but happen it does.

From another angle, though, sport seems at its purest to summon from some well within the appetite for "playing together" or with another, which is ultimately an elaborate form of celebrating at least the prospect of mutuality, if not the thing itself. In competition, two "adversaries" meet together to vie for something or other within a set of agreed upon rules, and that is play. That this should happen at all and that so many take remarkable pleasure in it makes even less sense.

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