CINEMA: by John WhitehallNews Weekly
Portrait of Nelson Mandela - Invictus (rated PG)
, April 17, 2010
Invictus (rated PG), starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood, is reviewed here by John Whitehall.
I was deeply impressed by the film Invictus, which is a particular story of South African President Nelson Mandela's inspiration for the victory of the Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The story is set against the backdrop of his general leadership in favour of reconciliation and forgiveness in South Africa when the potential for civil war was acute.
|Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon|
I was moved emotionally by the portrayal of Mandela as a man of peace, unembittered by his years of imprisonment, and with a strength of leadership based on a clarity of wisdom that was, altogether, saintly. I like to believe in saints, though I have not met many; but Morgan Freeman as Mandela was as convincing as they come.
I played a bit of rugby as a young man, and this certainly helped me to appreciate the rather prolonged scenes of the game which were largely unintelligible to my wife; but even she thought the players looked strangely unfatigued at half time and certainly did not look like the men I watch on television. Director Clint Eastwood should have thrown at least a bucket of muddy water on the players' heads for better effect.
But this is a minor criticism of a film that moved me more than most. In the days that followed I was inspired to reflect on the two unforeseen "miracles" that affected South Africa in the 1980s and '90s: the peacefulness of Mandela and the fall of the Soviet Union. The former has risen to sainthood; the latter has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
How related were they? Was Mandela's soul transformed from the passionate creator of an army of revolutionary violence, the Spear of the Nation, to a man of peace? Or was he the consummate man of practical wisdom, disarming his foes by charm? Did he reverse Clausewitz's dictum, making politics the successful instrument of war?
Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom
, does not provide access to the author's soul. He says he had a Methodist education, taught the Bible at Sunday School, and states in a couple of places that he is Christian. He also states he was not a communist, as he preferred African nationalism to a foreign ideology; but there is little revelation of the spirit of the man.
Mac Maharaj was a leader of the South African Communist Party who was imprisoned, along with Mandela, in Robben Island as a "political prisoner" for similar crimes of violent sabotage against the state. On the question of Mandela's religion, Maharaj implies Mandela was tricked by fellow-prisoners into attending church.Self-control
However, on the matter of Mandela's self-control, he says of Mandela's relations with the ruling Afrikaners: "All these things came through careful thought and it took much pain to accept that you had to put your hatred in one pocket - recognise its legitimacy, but put it on one side - when you decided how you were going to deal with the enemy face to face.
"And [Mandela] led us in that process: don't let your hatred and your anger, however legitimate, determine how you interact. When it is said he came out of prison as a reconciler, it is forgotten that in the freedom struggle you had to reconcile contradictory interests in a common front against apartheid."
It is all too easily forgotten that many African National Congress identities were leaders in the South African Communist Party whose Leninist doctrines insisted that their party (the vanguard anointed by history) should alone exercise political leadership.
Their common front was directed not solely against the ruling whites but against "reformist" blacks who sought to avoid violent revolution.
In the 1980s, it was official ANC policy to render the homelands "ungovernable" by violence, including the grisly practice of executing non-ANC blacks by "necklacing", i.e., placing a petrol-soaked car tyre around a victim's neck and setting it alight. This was certainly not the time of reconciliation.
Indeed, those were the years of Soviet-sponsored violence throughout southern Africa. In Mozambique, the leader of FRELIMO, Samora Machel - whose widow has now married Mandela - declared that his "line" was "firmly oriented toward Marxist-Leninist socialism". His reign of terror was characterised by executions, re-education camps and attempts at agricultural collectivisation that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation.
In East Timor, the left-wing underground resistance movement renamed itself FRETILIN after FRELIMO. In Angola, Cuban and Soviet forces attempted to fulfil Fidel Castro's prophecy when he said: "Africa is today the weak link in the imperialist chain. It is there that the best hopes exist of passing from tribalism to socialism without passing through the different stages that other parts of the world have been obliged to experience."
However, the Soviet Union then collapsed and the fuel for revolution in southern Africa evaporated. In line with Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost
, even Joe Slovo, leader of the South African Communist Party and co-founder with Nelson Mandela of its military wing, was forced to concede that "if the socialist world stands in tatters at this historic moment, it is due to the Stalinist distortions".
In other words, Marxist-Leninist theory remained correct; it was merely misapplied. The party should retain the responsibility for leadership of society towards the creation of the New Man, but needed to secure that role by securing its popularity in a democratic manner. It was politically expedient for the party to be reconciled with its former "enemies".
In South Africa, as enunciated by Mandela in the film, it was also time for what was hoped to be a peaceful reconciliation, because the power and the guns were still in the hands of the Afrikaners. Whatever the state of his soul, Mandela needed to disarm the Afrikaners and, lacking his own arms, charm was, ultimately, his only weapon.
The Bible teaches we are to judge men by their actions, and some of Mandela's have been exemplary. He has inspired reconciliation and forgiveness and such hope or trust in the Afrikaners that they have been prepared to lay down their arms and, thus far, haemorrhage has been avoided. I am not sure that he has sought forgiveness for his murder of the ANC's opponents.
It is common wisdom that a man can be judged by the friends he keeps, and here the case for Mandela's sainthood is at its weakest. Within months of his release from prison in 1990, Mandela visited Libya to receive the International Qadhafi Prize for Human Rights (described by one wag as equivalent to the Heinrich Himmler Prize for Religious Tolerance). In 1997 he referred to Colonel Qadhafi as "my dear brother" and gave him South Africa's highest award, the Order of Good Hope. Later, Mandela was to call Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat "a comrade in arms" and to declare his indebtedness to "the Islamic Revolution".
In 1995, a solidarity conference between Cuba and South Africa was held in Durban. There Mandela declared Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to be "a man of the masses". Mandela had previously visited Cuba and proclaimed his hope that the dictator should "long live".
Castro had, of course, long outlived many of those who had tried to oppose his tyranny, and was destined to outlive the estimated 1,000 to 2,500 political prisoners still in his jails at the time of the conference. By any accounts, Cuba's jails with their notorious ratoneras
(rat-holes) make South Africa's Robben Island look like a resort. Had Mandela created a military organisation to oppose Castro, he probably would not have had the opportunity to live long enough to enter a rat-hole. And then there is Mandela's support for Syria, North Korea and Iran's sinister nuclear program.
It is a shame to look too closely at human beings. It is far more pleasant to imagine flawless idols.
While director Clint Eastwood busied himself with sanctifying Mandela, he seems also to have sought to diminish the reputation of Springboks captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), whose reputation for being a Christian was somewhat tarnished in the movie.
Some none-too-subtle hints of pre-marital co-habitation and use of profane language, together with his calling the Springboks players to a stilted prayer of thanks after their historic victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, don't resonate with Pienaar's comments on the BBC: "I fell right to my knees and wanted to say a quick prayer for being in such a wonderful event, not because of winning. Then, all of a sudden, the whole team was around me, which was a special moment."