Rugby gave South Africa a founding myth

Image of Simon Kuper

Some years ago, quite by chance, the British-Spanish writer John Carlin and the American actor Morgan Freeman met in somebody’s living room in Mississippi. Carlin leaned forward and said in mock-Hollywood tones: “Mr Freeman, this is your lucky day. I’ve got a movie for you.”

Carlin was writing the story of how Nelson Mandela had used the Rugby World Cup of 1995 to bring South Africans of all colours together. He knew that Freeman had dreamed for years of playing Mandela. “It’s a book,” Carlin began to explain, “that distils the essence of Mandela’s genius and the essence of the South African miracle.”

And Freeman interjected, “Oh, you mean the rugby game.” He had already seen the script. On Oscar night on Sunday week, Freeman hopes to be named best actor for his role in Invictus.

His Mandela is not quite Mandela. Freeman captures the man’s inner calm, but occasionally lapses into an American accent and, surprisingly for a film star, does not have as good a face as the politician. But the bigger question is whether Invictus tells a truth about Mandela’s “long walk to freedom”. Sport almost never changes history, but Carlin argues that this rugby match helped Mandela create a new South Africa.

Over breakfast near his flat in Barcelona, Carlin argues that South Africa in 1995 could still have fallen prey to far-right white terrorism. In the film, Mandela’s bodyguards forever fear attack. An atrocity could have sparked civil war.

Carlin acknowledges that by 1995 Mandela had already won over many white rightists. There was a recurring Afrikaner story that went like this: a hardline Afrikaner knows Mandela is a crazed terrorist, finally meets him, is charmed, and stumbles away with his worldview upended.

When this happened to the Afrikaner parliamentarian Koos Botha, he wanted to share his revelation of Mandela’s greatness with his constituents. He didn’t dare. Then, at the rugby final, when Mandela donned that ultimate Afrikaner symbol, the Springbok jersey, and shook hands with the team’s Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar, while the Afrikaner crowd chanted “Nelson, Nelson!”, Botha’s constituents finally saw the Mandela Botha had seen. For years Mandela had won over Afrikaners one by one. At the final, he won the whole tribe. After that, says Carlin, Afrikaner separatism effectively disappeared.

But Mark Gevisser, biographer of Thabo Mbeki, disputes that rugby changed history. By 1995, he says, most Afrikaners had already grasped that their only option was the place in the new South Africa Mandela was offering them. The match was a pageant that dramatised what had already happened. Sport does not change the world, but tells stories that help us understand it.

Yet in the longer run, that match meant more than any other sporting event I can think of. In the film, while every other character thinks that rugby is just rugby, Mandela sees that it can help build a nation. Most nations draw their founding myths from wars or revolutions. But the new South Africa, created in the 1990s, needed something more suited to the media age. The liberation struggle made a tricky founding myth, because it had pitted some South Africans against others. Sport was safer. All the colours could cheer South Africa’s victory in the rugby, and in football’s African Nations Cup a year later. Sport provided happy snaps to stick in the new national photograph album.

Nobody would say South Africa today is perfectly united. One cabinet minister grumbled to me that whereas blacks felt South African, not all whites did. Nonetheless, there is now a nationalism that crosses colour boundaries. It can be seen in the absence of any serious separatist movement, in the shared pride in the coming football World Cup, and in the countless daily moments of friendliness when whites and blacks meet in this still largely segregated country. It is built in part on a rugby match. Freeman chose the right vehicle to play Mandela. Just for once, sport mattered.

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