The Real Story of 'Invictus'

In an early scene from Invictus, a group of beefy white Afrikaner men crowd around Nelson Mandela's security detail. It's Mandela's first day as South Africa's first black president, and his jittery guards leap up to confront the intruders. "Are you coming to arrest us?" asks the lead officer with an uneasy smile. But no, the old order truly has collapsed. Racial tensions may have pushed the nation to the brink of civil war, but Mandela trusts his erstwhile Afrikaner enemies enough to assign these white security police to protect him. (Article continued below…)

Turns out he's right. And by the time the film ends, the white and black guards have bonded over soccer, rugby—and the leader they are keeping safe. Hollywood hype? Not this time. Invictus—the title comes from the poem that inspired Mandela during his 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid—may be the best depiction yet of South Africa's fraught transition to democracy. On one level, Clint Eastwood's latest work is a blockbuster story about South Africa's battle to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995. On a more fundamental level, forget the games—this is no sports movie. Rather, it's a deft look at what a difference inspirational leadership can make, even in a nation with such a seemingly intractable past as South Africa.

Invictus takes us from Mandela's 1994 election through South Africa's World Cup quest the following year. It covers the new president's fight to retain the Springbok name and jersey of the national rugby team, even as his advisers warn him against squandering valuable political capital by alienating his core constituency. Mandela's decision to keep the divisive green and gold colors—beloved by the white minority; a reminder of decades of oppression to the black majority—was just one of his many gestures of reconciliation to the country's former rulers. It wasn't simply altruism: Mandela knew that his political victory was a tenuous one. Although his ruling African National Congress (ANC) dominated Parliament, whites still controlled the economy. Extremist Afrikaners remained a threat; their resistance to a black-dominated government could still plunge the country into anarchy, insurrection, and terror. It is South Africa's good fortune that Mandela opted for reconciliation over retribution. His insistence that the Springboks remain the Springboks was just one of his many bipartisan gestures, but it would be hard to overstate the symbolic significance of this particular one.

South Africans worship sport. Of all the sanctions that were imposed on the regime, there is no doubt that it was the nation's exclusion from international sports competitions that had the biggest psychological impact on whites. I covered the country through its final decade of apartheid to Mandela's inauguration as president (movingly portrayed by archival footage in Invictus), and I remember vividly an encounter during the landmark 1992 referendum. President F. W. de Klerk had taken the risk of calling an all-white plebiscite to win support for the faltering negotiations with Mandela's ANC. De Klerk needed a convincing win, especially among his fellow Afrikaners, both to prove to the rest of the world that he was serious about relinquishing power and also to avoid exacerbating racial tensions. Reporting from a Cape Town polling station that day, I asked a white man for his opinion. "I'm voting yes [for change]," he said. Why? "Because I want us to play international rugby again." That man was not alone. Despite predictions to the contrary, De Klerk won a convincing 68.7 percent of the vote, with many whites saying openly it was because they wanted the sports boycott to end.

Mandela understood that. He also understood the blow to white morale when the country was finally allowed back into the international arena—and found just how badly its athletes had deteriorated during the years of isolation. The losses weren't only in rugby. But for whites, especially Afrikaners, that was where they hurt the most. Against that backdrop, Mandela made an inspired decision—to wear the once reviled Springbok jersey onto the field for the rugby final. (For the uninitiated, rugby can look a lot like American football, but it is played without protective helmets or pads; players on each team play both offense and defense.) Even today, in a South Africa struggling against problems like massive HIV-infection rates, rampant crime, and growing corruption, it's a gesture that black and white alike still remember as a turning point. That makes Invictus an appropriate tribute to a man of vision.

On a broader level, it's also a case study for a troubled world suffering a dearth of great leadership. Unlike so much of the "based on a true story" genre, the movie genuinely is faithful to the mood and reality of the time. If it glosses over anything, it's the controversy over whether Chester Williams, the only nonwhite player on the Springbok squad, was a token appointment. But that's probably a minor point—especially after Williams's high-scoring performance in the Cup quarterfinals silenced his critics. More authentic is Morgan Freeman's utterly brilliant portrayal of Mandela. Freeman doesn't just nail the accent, the voice, and the posture—he captures Mandela's old-world charm and courtesy as well.

The real Mandela is 91 now. His body is frail; his appearances rare. Since the end of his five-year term as president, he has made few public statements about the policies of his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Privately, however, it would be surprising if Mandela were not disappointed in their leadership. Mandela, who lost a son to AIDS, campaigned vigorously against the disease even as Mbeki's failure to develop a strategy against it contributed to the unnecessary deaths of an estimated 330,000 people. Later, Zuma's battle to win the presidency from Mbeki split Mandela's ANC. Nonetheless, many analysts see Zuma's conciliatory post-election steps as coming straight from the Mandela playbook. Zuma, too, may decide to don the national team's jersey when the country hosts another World Cup next year, this time in soccer. And if South Africans no longer see that gesture as anything out of the ordinary, that may be Mandela's best reward of all.