Rugby helped Mandela to convert white supremacists

Thu Feb 25, 2010 2:04am EST
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By John Mehaffey

LONDON (Reuters) - Sports movies too often veer uneasily between off-field drama and on-pitch action without portraying either with much conviction.

"Invictus", the tale of Nelson Mandela's role in South Africa's triumphal 1995 rugby World Cup victory over the New Zealand All Blacks, is more plausible than most, although it has its critics.

The film features a dignified performance by Morgan Freeman as South African president Mandela and a passable portrayal of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar by Matt Damon. Clint Eastwood directs with an assured hand.

Freeman is maybe too saintly, Damon too short, albeit impressively muscled, and the rugby scenes are patchy. Some of the plot contrivances grate.

The force of "Invictus" derives from its subject matter, however. It succeeds in showing a mass audience, who will not necessarily be aware of the details of South African history, how Mandela won over white supremacists by embracing their cherished sport of rugby union.

Sport, and in particular rugby union, was an essential weapon in the bitter, protracted war against apartheid.

In December, the month that "Invictus" went on general release in the United States, the man who seized upon sport as a weapon to fight South Africa's racist policies died in his sleep in Cape Town.

Dennis Brutus, a Zimbabwean-born poet and political activist, was imprisoned on Robben Island in the cell next to Mandela. While breaking stones he heard the news that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had suspended South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.   Continued...

<p>South African President Nelson Mandela (L) shakes hands with Springok captain Francois Pienaar after their team defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg in this June 24, 1995 file photo. REUTERS/Mark Baker/Files</p>