That’s not rugby

“Invictus,” the Hollywood film based on Brit journalist John Carlin’s book about the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final–which South Africa’s team won against New Zealand in Johannesburg–will be out in the first week of December. In South Africa (and increasingly outside the country) a lot has been read into that final match. Firstly, because Mandela endorsed the team (that was associated with white power and that most black people refused to support). Secondly, because the overwhelmingly white spectators, some who waved Apartheid flags and some who until recently viewed Mandela as a terrorist, chanted Mandela’s name and gave him a standing ovation.  And, third, because it was seen as some kind of break with Apartheid. Most of the people in the township I grew up in, if they watched the games at all, actually supported New Zealand in that game. More than than, I remembered it at the time as nothing more than just a rugby final and nothing more. The team still stayed overwhelmingly white after that (in fact, Mandela took the national rugby board to court 3 years later for failing to transform.), white fans still continued to wave the old flag at matches long after that and still had a hard time reconciling themselves with a need to end racial privilege.

I read Carlin’s book and did not find it terribly exciting. For me, it presented little new knowledge or interpretation that had not been recycled in South African newspapers (by mostly white sports writers) at the time and after that. So I don’t expect the film to break from the “rainbow nation” narrative despite the fact that its sell buy date has long expired.  And the trailer (which you can’t embed and can only see on Apple’s website) does not suggests otherwise.

Couple of preliminary observations: check the theme music, you’ll recognize it from South African beer commercial which plays heavy on patriotism and nation-building. Also what white school–as portrayed in the trailer–is right next to a black shanty town? If only.

I’ll probably give it a miss like I did “Disgrace,” the Hollywood version of J M Coetzee’s novel.

UPDATE: The trailer is now available:



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. Your take on the movie is dead on. I saw it a while back and it's just as awful as the book. Watching it, I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a parody of the feel good, dramatic conversion genre but the very thing itself. It's perfect as a Hallmark movie of the week.

  2. Interesting to read your thoughts on this – I have a slightly different take as an Aussie who has just moved to South Africa. I believe the book opens up the Apartheid story to a broader base for understanding given it is written in a very easy to read format and combines sport with politics. Its not perfect but it may get more people to understand the story that they weren't interested in before given the heavy nature of a lot of prior books on the topic. Also a movie with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon trying out South African accents is never going to appeal to all South Africans (and probably very few) I am heavily reminded of Meryl Streep trying an Aussie accent 'A dingo ate my baby' but it will most likely be seen by many people outside South Africa and may give them a better understanding of the South African story and some positive thoughts on the country and where it is trying to go. I imagine only South Africans themselves who have lived through the last 20,30,40 + years can really understand what has happened but sometimes an American feel good movie can help with the rest of the world.

  3. I wouldn't see this movie if I was paid to. The entire concept is ridiculous, a n American "lets save the country by winning a rugby match" interpretation. So Francois Pienaar saved the country??? And why not use local actors?

  4. Nikki I kind of disagree, because the movie will give the rest of the world an incorrect understanding. The Rugby World cup did not unite the nation, and the rugby players did not save the day.

    SA winning the rugby world cup in 1994 united all rugby playing fans of all colours, their spouses and children perhaps, and maybe a few others. I would guess that comes to about 20% of the population? It did not unite people who do not have tv's, who see rugby as an opressor's sport, or people who just don't care. The idea of the rugby world cup uniting a nation is one that some people like to believe and I can see why you would think it if you were overseas watching the match, but it is not true and in fact I think it could be a damaging falsehood.

  5. Po – I appreciate your opinion as a South African with a broader knowledge of the issues than I will likely ever have. I am here now and I read the papers every day and see the news – it is obvious the issues are far from resolved. To be honest the final game in Australia is generally remembered as one of the 'dirtiest' rugby games by the Springboks based on their tactics – not at all about 'uniting a country'.
    Either way as an American feel good movie (no disagreement from me there) it will give SA some good press prior to the World Cup -which won't go astray for encouraging tourists and letting them see the country for themselves

    1. Nikki – How will the movie encourage tourism or give SA "some good press prior to he World Cup?" The movie may produce good press for rugby and its overhwelmingly white dominated fan base but I'm not clear how that translates into good press and increased tourism.

  6. Nikki I guess you are right about the good press. I happen to be horribly critical of movies, and especially American feel-good movies, because they never make me feel good! When I saw the trailer for this movie, I felt nauseous. I am a bit extreme though, and I am sure many people will love this movie. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

  7. I was 15 years old at the time of the Rugby world cup, I'm a born and bred South African i can say that the importance of the rugby world cup final can never be overstimated.

    Nelson Mandela and the springboks accomplished in one rugby final more than years of politicing could achieve- they united a fractured people in a wave of patriotism. I was there it was tangible and it was real, perhaps it didn't linger as long as people had hoped but for a country which only a few years back was on the brink of civil war it was an accomplishment never seen before or since.

    I think it's great that Clint Eastwood has made this film It is not feel-good American films about South Africa that make me nauseous ( there are so few of those) but bitter ex-patriot South Africans who continue to polarise the country by writing on their blogs how terrible the country is and how it will never be unified (those we have in abundance)

  8. An interesting take from the author and Po. I agree with Kevin and believe it helped unite the nation. I recall other clips I have seen with James Small crying. I think the support Mandela gave the Springboks has gone a long way to unifying the country. There are still those that will go to Newlands in their NZ jerseys and refuse to support the rasict Springboks, but I think they are getting fewer and fewer just like those that take the old SA flag to games. Unity didnt happen overnight and I am not sure the movie is trying to paint the picture that SA is rosy, merely how the world cup helped break down some barriers.

  9. To all you pessimists!! I am a zimbabwean national born and bred and have been educated in the 'new south africa'. I was totally inspired by this movie and walking out of the theatre to see 'the rainbow national' all around me after the country has suffered so much strive is what this movie stands testament to. South Africa (and VERY MANY countries inc. 1st world ones) need more positvity and belief. NOT pessimism!! I think this movie is fantastic and offers inspiration to people. Why poo-hoo something like that? To what end?!

  10. Amen to you Kevin. I'm also sick of bitter ex-patriots imposing their grievances on others. Why hold on to past grudges? Mandela didn't. And as the poem says- "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul."

  11. I have not watched the movie. I thought it would be best to do so after the hype has died down. I don't have much to say except that I am sick of Americans playing South Africans. The thought of it just weakens me. Dearest Sarah, I was born in Zim, bred in Botswana and have spent most of my adult life in SA. In all honesty, the truth of the matter is that this is a typical Hollywood feel-good movie. Just because other people didn't feel good watching it is no reason to call them pessimists. And I can also honestly say that unless the South African opposition parties get more support to ensure that the ANC government does not get out of hand, SA will end up being another Zim. I have been saying it for years because the rhetoric of late from the ANC mirrors that of ZANU-PF. Everyone thought nothing would come of it and then, WE ALL GOT WALLOPED, BLACKS INCLUDED!

    I have seen a farm invasion with my own eyes. I had family members threatened and beaten to the point of death by those so called war veterans. Whatever political party you support, including the ANC, please do not let a couple of bozos destory this beautiful country, because despite everything, we all know that SA is beautiful.

  12. a) Mr Mandela was by his own admission a terrorist, and was responsible for the deaths of innocent women and children – irrespective of the political background of the country and the viewpoints of individuals.
    b) "the team stayed overwhelmingly white after that" – this is racism at its finest. Why should the racial makeup of a sports team be a problem for someone who supposedly isn't prejudiced?

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