Invictus: John Carlin, Book Review

Read the book forget the film. Paradoxically, all enthusiasts of the coming FIFA football World Cup In South Africa should read John Carlin’s Invictus, which focuses not on football but on the 1995 Rugby World Cup that was also held in that country. A Hollywood style film has recently been made on the basis of the book, though I couldn’t bring myself to watch it because films rarely catch the nuances of a complex story and Clint Eastwood the director, rarely offers any nuances in any of his films. Carlin’s book on the other hand is a classic, smartly written account, with all the political empathy needed to do this remarkable story justice.

If at times the story reads like a fairy tale, Carlin is the first to admit that this real life story is just that; a rare example of humanity rising above its base tribal instincts and producing an end result that gives a glimpse of what our species is capable of. In Carlin’s own words he states, As for the theme, it was one that would be relevant everywhere conflicts arise from the incomprehension and distrust that goes hand in hand with the species congenital tribalism. I mean tribalism in the widest sense of the word, as applied to race, religion, nationalism, or politics.Carlin’s Invictus recounts the story of Mandela’s imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid regime and his subsequent policy of neutering his racist jailers by engaging with them on their own territory; the Afrikaner’s own language and their beloved game of choice, rugby.

To put it simply, football was the sport of the majority black population, not just in South Africa but throughout the continent, whilst rugby was the near exclusive preserve of the White apartheid regime. The Springbok team was universally hated by the black population who rightfully saw it as a symbol of the hated, brutal apartheid system, but for the Afrikaners it was their near religious symbol of their perverted belief in white racial superiority. That Mandela chose to embrace, integrate and ultimately transform his enemy rather than attempt to militarily destroy them is a philosophical position that every liberation struggle should at least ponder. Love thine enemy, the title of the last chapter and philosophical starting point for both Ghandi and Mandela, is not so easy to embrace when you have been at the receiving end of the colonial, fascist jackboot as had the black South Africans for many decades.

That this policy appears to have worked for South Africa while distinctly failing those in the Indian sub-continent, would suggest that there is no simple blueprint for human advancement. I cannot conceive, for example, of any amount of brotherly embrace that would have neutered the fascist threat in the nineteen thirties. Nazi aggression had to be met with superior force. Of course, as a tactic in a long and complex struggle, winning over sections of the enemy while isolating and destroying the more intransigent elements, has long been in the arsenal of liberation movements. And it should never be forgotten that underlying Mandela’s policy of winning over the Afrikaners was the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, not to mention the military support they received from their comrades in Cuba. Without this threat of all-out civil war, I very much doubt if Mandela’s strategy would have borne much fruit. This point is never really explored by Carlin who prefers to be swept along by the romanticism of Mandela’s story. I remember well how the Sandinistas of Nicaragua attempted to apply their revolutionary Christian theology to the former National Guardsmen of the outgoing Somoza dictatorship, allowing them free passage out of the country, only to see the CIA help them financially and militarily regroup in order to launch a viscous counter revolutionary offensive, unleashing on the Nicaraguan peasants the most horrific reign of terror one could imagine, all illegally paid for with American tax dollars. One can’t help but imagining that a little less human forgiveness and a little more Stalinist ruthlessness on behalf of the Sandinista leadership might have spared the country the counter-revolutionary barbarism that was inflicted upon their humanistic revolution.

Of course we can only speculate on these matters. History has no pre-ordained path.Notwithstanding the political and philosophical dimensions behind Mandela’s story, there is at the centre of it all an amazing story of sport, perhaps the greatest sporting story of all time, and certainly rivalling that of the story of Jessie Owens ruining Mr Hitler’s party at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Mandela himself is quoted as saying, Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. P4 If Carlin’s account of the 1995 World cup final is anywhere near accurate, there can be no greater endorsement of Mandela’s position.To remember the world wide protests against the Springbok tours is to understand the power of sport both as a force for progress and for reaction. In the case of South African sport, we can see it in both lights. Sport, and in particular the springbok rugby team, was central to everybody’s understanding of apartheid.

Carlin elaborates quoting an ANC activist, Arnold Stofile, who called rugby the opium of the Boer. Stofile explains, We always defined sport as apartheid in tracksuits. It was a very important element in the foreign affairs of this country, sports icons being de facto ambassadors for South Africa, a key part of the effort to make apartheid less unacceptable. And as far as internal policy was concerned, it was the barrier that kept white youngsters secluded from blacks and so had big support from government, and big business got big tax rebates from supporting sport. So it was the opium that kept whites in happy ignorance; the opium that numbed white South Africa. P66 Stoflie continues, This (international sports boycott) affected all of them, every white male, every household in a sports-mad country whose main source of pride regarding the rest of the world was its sport prowess. Mandela understood this implicitly and played a twin strategy. On the one hand he used the stick of the international boycott and on the other the carrot of relaxing the boycott if the Afrikaners would lay down their weapons.

Events proved this strategy to be spot on the mark.Mandela met much resistance from his own supporters for this twin track policy. The initial response was very negative within the ANC. Mandela explained his position thus; Up to now rugby has been the application of apartheid in the sports field. But now things are changing. We must use sport for the purpose of nation building and promoting all the ideas which we think will lead to peace and stability in the country. Mandela, reflecting on the negative response he received commented some years later, I understood the anger and hostility of the black population because they had grown up in an atmosphere where they regarded sport as an arm of apartheid, where we supported the foreign teams when they came to play against South Africa. Now suddenly I come out of jail and I’m saying we must embrace these people! My idea was to ensure that we got the support of the Afrikaners, because, as I kept reminding people, rugby, as far as the Afrikaners are concerned, is a religion.

Carlin adds, Mandela’s most powerful argument was that rugby was worth several battalions. P113

Mandela’s policy won the day and in so doing, likely avoided a civil war bloodbath in which neither side could realistically win quickly or cleanly. Since that dramatic day in 1995 when the whole country, black and white, Afrikaner fascists and the black liberation movement, got behind the victorious springbok team, the rainbow nation has muddled on in a relatively harmonious way. But as the football World Cup rapidly approaches, South Africa is still left with endemic poverty as a result of centuries of European colonial rule and local tribal antagonisms. And it should never be forgotten that many elements of our ruling elite, who now fete Mandela as a great world statesman, originally condemned Mandela as a terrorist and upheld the Apartheid regime as the legitimate government of South Africa. Apart from the political support that Britain offered for that abominable regime, they also profited handsomely from the black slave labour in the South African industrial and mining industries. The South African gold and diamond mines were particularly profitable enterprises for Britain. Behind every colonial enterprise is an ill-gotten capitalist profit. Nowhere was that more true than in Apartheid South AfricaNatural cynicism concerning Britain’s past role in upholding apartheid should not blind us to the significance of the coming World Cup and what it means both to South Africa and to the continent as a whole. It can be another example of sport not merely reflecting life but actually leading it, in the same way that the Beijing Olympics heralded the arrival of China as a leading player of the 21st century.

Africa, after five centuries of European exploitation will, by hosting the FIFA World Cup, be making a statement of intent. If its under-development, caused by those centuries of colonial rule, is not to continue, Africa’s development will need to be urgently addressed by the world community in the form of a Marshall- aid type investment package, including serious reparations for the crime of slavery. This will be no ordinary World Cup. Behind every game of football played will be a barely disguised reminder of the damage done not, just by the four decades of apartheid, but by the entire colonial epoch. And a reminder also that the neo-colonial economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF only serve to perpetuate the damage. Remember, that for every dollar of foreign aid that enters the continent, twenty times that amount is taken out in profits and debt repayments to multinational corporations. That will need to change if the World Cup is to be anything other than a fig leaf for that continued exploitation and if the original aspirations of the South African national liberation movement are to be ever realised. Carlin’s excellent work is a good starting point for those football fans that have the will to look beyond the coming FIFA razzmatazz.

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