Sunday, January 24, 2010

Politics, Identity and Sport: Review of Invictus

Place traditionally defines sports identification. People follow "my" team which lives in a place of habitation or memory.  Teams and team loyalty grow from place like towns, cities or countries and represent community and self.
The movie Invictus recounts an historical parable that exposes the complexity of this seemingly simple dynamic of identifying with and rooting for teams from your place. The Clint Eastwood directed  movie portrays the story of how President Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, nurtures a counterintuitive connection between an Afrikaaners rugby team, the Springboks, and the recently empowered black majority citizenry of South Africa at the end of the apartheid era.

Mandela had recently been elected the first black African President of South Africa after serving over 27 years in prison as an alleged "terrorist."
In that  same year South Africa  was finally allowed to compete in the world Rugby tournament after years of being denied entry because of apartheid and they also were hosting the tournament.

No one could envision the team, emblematic of the most rabid apartheid supporters, the Afrikaaners, becoming the symbol of a racially united South Africa; it makes no historical sense. The point of the game  was politics. The intractable problem remained that white and black Africans inhabited the same place, but fought each other over control of the place. For a hundred years the minority whites had dominated and fragmented the black tribal communities to maintain their hold on power. The place of South Africa meant very different things to Afrikaaners and black South Africans, and neither side was sure they could coexist in equality in that place.

Now Mandela was the first black African elected leader of South Africa. He desparately needed ways to create a common identity when both sides defined themselves as blood enemies. He had to  reassure the white communities to encourage them to remain, and he needed some means to generate a shared identity across the racial divide. As Americans know only too well, sport can divide, but also can unite. If the people love a game, in this case rugby, and appreciate it's strength, demands and glory, sometimes, following a team that plays the game with greatness can unite people across many divides. Yet South African rugby's segregation only replicated the segregation and domination in the community. In prison Mandela, like his fellow black countrymen, always rooted for whomever played the Springboks.

Mandela loved the poem Invictus, a paen to an "unconquerable soul" to overcome endless adversity. He read it constantly during his isolation and prison. He never forgot that he remained  "The master of my fate; The captain of my soul." What fascinates about the story is how Mandela, who loves sport, made a realpolitik decision to seek out the Springboks club and publically woo their captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon. He deployed the club and its quest for victory in  the world cup as a rallying point for a divided nation.

This was not easy, as the movie makes clear. His own party wanted to strip the Springboks of their status and beloved colors. Others complained that focusing upon sports sapped energy needed to devote to more serious structural issues. The Springboks remained true underdogs; in this connection, Mandela gave the captain Pienaar a hand written copy of Invictus.

Mandela risked and  invested significant political capital to  support  the team. His support blessed them as a "national" team, a representative of the nation itself, not a tribe, not a race, but a dream of a united South Africa. When he wore the Springbok colors, both whites and blacks scowled. The movie does not flinch from the calculation behind this decision as well as the touchy relation between him and the archetype Afrikaaners. It  tends to romanticize the transformative power of Mandela and the team, but it nonetheless illustrates how a winning and excellent team can evoke an emotional response from disparate folks, even once and future enemies.

The dream of being united together with a shared commitment and shared love of excellence can play out in following a team from your place playing a sport you mutually respect, enjoy and love. The identification can bring folks together in watching, rooting and enjoying the victory as well as suffering with the loss.

I vaguely understand the dense dynamics of why many of us identity so strongly with sport teams as extensions of our sense of place and community. Mandela's strategy and the team's success conjures this reality. It also emphasizes how people can view sports as a proxy for a we/they battle and feel superiority with each other when their team wins. Teams bring us together as a "we" but "we" need a "them" to compete against as well as a shared glory to identify with.

The team wins the world cup in what remains a high point for South African sport and mythos of national unity. South Africa struggles today to hold itself together in face of huge intractable misery. Yet the Springboks, their old colors, once symbols of apartheid, now national, are still revered, much more integrated and have regained the world rugby title.

In this case the politics of identity play out as politics of sport. The story of the Springboks helped heal a still divided and struggling country and remind them, if only for a moment, of the possibility of shared bonds and admiration of excellence of those who represent them on the world athletic stage.