Invictus – Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus tells the story of how Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela used rugby as a way to bring his nation together as the country attempts to move past the era of Apartheid. The movie is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation and it recounts the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, shortly after the dismantling of apartheid in 1994.
Born Rolihlahla Mandela, the former lawyer was arrested in 1962 on charges of conspiracy against the South African government and served 27 years in prison before being released in 1990. Four years later, Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president. As Mandela settles in as the first democratically-elected president, the headline on a local newspaper asks, “He may win an election, but can he run a country?” Jason Tshabalala, head of Mandela’s security team, remarks “Not even your first day on the job and they’re already after you,” to which Mandela cracks, “It’s a legitimate question…”
The issue of white versus black is everywhere, from daily life to sports; this is none more evident than during a 1994 rugby game between the Springboks (South Africa’s rugby union) and England. Mandela observes the black South African fans rooting for England because to them, the mostly-white Springboks represented prejudice and apartheid. For the white South Africans, the Springboks rugby team was one of the few things that provided hope and joy to a group that lived in a divided nation.
The 1995 World Cup is a year away and is set to be hosted by South Africa. Mandela quickly realizes that this tournament could be the nation’s salvation. He convinces the mostly-black South African Sports Committee to publically support the Springboks in a show of national unity. He also convinces the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar, that a Springboks victory in the World Cup will unite and inspire the nation. While his wife comments, “it is a political calculation”, Mandela responds “it is a human calculation.”
Many South Africans are skeptical of Mandela’s vision but with Pienaar’s help, Mandela remains faithful to his plan.
Brothers, sisters, comrades: I am here because I believe you have made a decision with insufficient information and foresight. I am aware of your earlier vote. I am aware that it was unanimous. Nonetheless, I believe we should restore the Springboks; restore their name, their emblem and their colors, immediately. Let me tell you why. On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years, I studied them. I learned their language, read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against him. And we DID prevail, did we not? All of us here… we prevailed. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity; I know, all of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us, even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.”
As the Springboks train for the World Cup, Pienaar shares with his teammates Mandela’s hope that winning the tournament can unify the country. As the team trains, they begin to interact and develop friendships with the black fans. During the first game, support for the team begins to grow amongst the black population; by the team’s second game, the whole country is supporting the Springboks together. Despite predictions that the team will only reach the quarterfinals, the Springboks surprise everyone and advance to the finals against their arch-rival All-Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby union.
To motivate his team, Mandela brings them to his former prison in Robben Island; the men are all inspired by Mandela’s will but most notably Pienaar, whose amazed that Mandela “could spend thirty years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put [him] there”.
As the final game is about to begin, there is a scare when a South African Airways Boeing 747 jetliner flies in low over the stadium. What was thought as an assassination attempt turns out to be a show of patriotism, as the undersides of the plane’s wings reveal a painted message “Good Luck, Bokke” (Springboks’ Afrikaans nickname). The game ends with the Springboks victorious, 15-12, when fly-half Joel Stransky scores long drop-kick on added time. Mandela and Pienaar embrace at midfield, and the movie ends with Mandela rising in the back of a car driving away from the stadium reciting the Invictus poem:
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Invictus – Real Life, Reel Differences
- The scene where the airline jet suddenly flew over the stadium actually took place, but it was a planned event in real life. The plane’s approach was announced beforehand on the stadium’s PA system.
- It’s minor, but Morgan Freeman actually replaces the word “chance” with the word “fate” in the third line of “Invictus'” second stanza.
- In the film, Mandela gives a poem of “Invictus” to Francois Pienaar before the World Cup but in real life, Mandela gave Pienaar a copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s poem, “The Man in the Arena.”
- The most controversial and famous omission from the film is the All Black team’s claim that they were poisoned prior to the championship game by a South African waitress, Suzie, two days before playing the Boks in the World Cup final.
- In the movie, the Springbok players threw the ball around a lot but in reality, a core tactic the team employed was to constantly kick hoof the ball over the dead-ball line, pinning the opponents their own territory by repeatedly forcing them to drop out from their 22.
- In the scene where Mandela invites Pienaar to tea with him, he motions Pienaar to sit in a particular chair so that his guest does not have to look into the light. In reality, this probably would not have happened because, as Mandela revealed in his book Long Walk to Freedeom, his eyes are sensitive to light from the years of being forced to work in the quarry on Robben Island without sunglasses to protect his eyes from the glare of the sun reflecting off the lime.
- The first game Mandela attends (against England) is shown as being poorly attended, but it was actually sold out.
- In the movie, the Springboks team is shown to have a bad run of results leading up to the World Cup but in reality, the team was undefeated at home after the initial loss against England in 1994.
The historic 1995 Rugby World Cup final between the Springboks of South Africa and the All Blacks from New Zealand –the game that pulled a nation together– can be seen here in its entirety.
Where Are They Now?
Nelson Mandela retired from politics in June 1999 but continued to be a strong public voice, especially towards Western politics. He blames both the United States and the United Kingdom for the War in Iraq. Mandela remained a global icon and watched not only as the entire world celebrated his 90th birthday in 2008, but as South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup — a tournament won by Spain. Battling respiratory infections in his later years, Mandela passed in December 2013 at the age of 95. Despite his death, many of Mandela’s charities continue to go on with great success; of note are 46664 (pronounced “four, double six, six four”), a global movement fighting against HIV/AIDS in Africa, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
In an interview by News24 Nelson Mandela Media Centre for Mandela’s 90th birthday, Francois Pienaar shares his feelings on Nelson Mandela and the impact it had on him, the Springbok team, and South Africa.
Francois Pienaar, after a stellar performance in the 1995 World Cup, came under fire for negotiating deals with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that turned rugby into more of a professional sport. After two seasons as player-coach for Saracens F.C. in the late 1990s, Pienaar retired from the sport. He make a short-lived attempt as an executive for the club and wrote a 1999 autobiography, Rainbow Warrior. Pienaar now lives in Cape Town, South Africa with his wife and two children.
Here is a clip where Pienaar talks about the victory over New Zealand and the impact that it had on South Africa.
Chester Williams, the team’s lone black player, managed to also win a Currie Cup in 1999 with the Golden Lions and turned to writing after his career ended, releasing a controversial 2002 biography known as “Chester”. In said novel, Williams accuses teammates on the 1995 team of racism and discrimination, but these comments would later be taken back and clarified. Williams coached for five teams from 2001-13 and also was invited to take part in the 2004 Athens Olympics as a torch carrier for South Africa.
Joel Stransky, despite the glory and success he had in the 1995 World Cup, battled injuries for the rest of his career; one knee injury, in fact, kept him from playing in the 1999 World Cup for England’s team. After failed attempts to go into coaching, Stransky decided to give color commentating a try and currently works as a director of Pivotal Capital’s marketing/promotional firm.