Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Playing the Enemy

A commentary on a great read

In Playing the Enemy, John Carlin tells the story of the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the decisive role it played in creating a real post-apartheid South African nationalism. The author interviewed many of the people in the book, including Mandela, the rugby team and its management, Mandela's bodyguards, African National Congress insiders, and the head of the apartheid South African intelligence service. He has woven their lives and reactions to the game into a broader, and highly readable, history of South Africa's transition to democracy.

A lawyer by training, you will recall that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for being a member of the African National Congress, which opposed white rule over blacks. To give an example of the kind of rule that was, in one episode in the book, a black murdered a white. The police rounded up that man and 13 others who were in the area, and they were all tried for the same crime.

Whites in South Africa were passionate about rugby, but because of apartheid they were unable to play international teams. The last time they had played overseas, in 1980 in New Zealand, for eight weeks each game had been greeted with protests. New Zealanders were more divided than ever before.

Mandela used astute politics and humane charm to carry the nation through its first successful democratic elections in 1994. Then, he used a kind of collective ecstasy to unite the country. That came with the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela, against the grain of his own constituency, went out of his way to wear a Springboks cap, appeared at the final in the team shirt and at every stage argued that the Boks were now the whole nation's team. South Africa won 15-12 in overtime and the nation celebrated. The rest is history.

By the way, there is an excellent film based on this book. Its title is Invictus, based on the poem of that name by 19th-century English poet William Ernest Henley. That poem was Mandela's favourite: It gave him strength during the many years he spent in prison.

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