The film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on real events, tells of how Nelson Mandela, the newly elected president of South Africa following the first free elections in the country (1994), used sport as a political tool. More specifically, the film portrays the moment when South Africa hosted the third edition of the Rugby World Cup in 1995.
The South African rugby team won the competition, a symbolic moment with significant cultural and political implications. In South Africa, rugby (along with cricket) was a white sport, while football was a black sport. The racial and ethnic segregation of these sports was so strong that many black South Africans would often support opposing teams in games against the national rugby team, which was composed almost entirely of white athletes. At same time, white South Africans discriminated against football. The country’s racial split, in this way, was something that manifested itself very clearly in sports arenas.
Several scenes in Invictus try to show the segregation between whites and blacks in sport in South Africa. One of these scenes shows a football field and a rugby pitch, separated only by a road, on which the convoy of the newly freed Mandela is about to pass. On one side of the road, black boys play football, while on the other, whites are training for rugby, with the differences in social standing also on display.
In this context, the Mandela government, one of the main leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, engaged in the political use of sport. Through rugby, it aimed to unite the country around one project: the building of the nation. Not coincidentally, as shown in the Eastwood film, the theme of the event was “One team, one country.” The organization of the event encouraged the players to sing the new South African hymn, “Nkosi Sikelele” (“God Bless Africa” in Xhosa). The national rugby team was also encouraged to train with 300 children from a black neighborhood. Similarly, “Shosholoza,” an old folk song used by black miners and usually sung at football stadiums, was strategically chosen as the official song of Rugby World Cup. A second name for the South African team was also created. Called the “Springboks,” an animal of the savannah, the team also became known as “Amabokoboko,” the equivalent in Xhosa. These initiatives were intended to create a sense of national identity and cohesion that would overcome the country’s ethnic fragmentation—one of the main political problems in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
John Carlin, author of the book on which the Invictus screenplay is based, wrote that the story would be relevant wherever there was conflict generated by misunderstanding and mistrust.2 This may well have been what attracted Clint Eastwood to direct the film version of Carlin’s book. His recent films have examined the drama of societies split by cultural diversity, especially because of immigration. This was the subject of his film prior to Inivictus. Gran Torino (2008) tells the story of a conflict between an American, on one hand, and Hmong and Latin American immigrants on the other hand. Metaphorically this is also the subject of Invictus, which reduces the racial peculiarities of South African [End Page 316] society to a common network of symbols in order to make it culturally intelligible for an American audience. In many ways, the imagined setting of Eastwood’s film is the United States, not South Africa, as viewers watch the efforts at multiculturalism in a country that has just elected its first black president.
In Invictus, Eastwood uses the history of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa to shine a light on American political and cultural problems. The film portrays the nationalist feelings that can arise through sport, building in this case to a happy ending that suggests the resolution of the ethnic problems of South African society. Despite the success of South Africa in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the building of the “rainbow nation” would not be so easy. While nationalism (or patriotism in the United States) can at times promote respect for cultural...