Friday 20 July 2018

'Invictus' fails to tell real South African story

Hugh Farrelly

WITH Ireland reeling from their Stade de France squashing, it's not a bad time to take a sabbatical from the Six Nations and dwell on the type of Hollywood ending we did not witness in Paris.

Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus' has brought rugby into the mainstream -- i.e. America -- with its account of the fascinating events behind South Africa's victory at the 1995 World Cup. It is a powerful piece of cinema that does justice to the roles of President Nelson Mandela and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in securing a victory that was held up as a unifying moment for the fledgling 'Rainbow Nation'. However, there are less palatable aspects to the story which are tactfully omitted.

Last June, we were in a sports bar in Johannesburg admiring the giant photograph behind the counter of Mandela (in his Springbok No 6 jersey), Pienaar and the South African team celebrating their symbolic win over New Zealand in 1995.


A large, unmistakably Boer, gentleman was waiting to be served alongside and registered our interest in this landmark image and, without invitation, offered his take. "There's only two things wrong with that picture Bru; the kaffir on the left and the kaffir in the middle."

'Kaffir' is a deeply offensive word in South Africa, similar to the 'N' word in its historical association with racial injustice, but this Afrikaner had no hesitation in applying it to Mandela and South African left-wing Chester Williams.

The truth is, while South Africa's victory in 1995 was portrayed as an event which brought the nation together and made a meaningful break from its apartheid past, the rugby team never had the unqualified support of the country, while the victory was, to a certain extent, manufactured.

New Zealand were the best team in the world in 1995 and (with 20-year-old behemoth Jonah Lomu bulldozing all before him) scorched their way to the final. South Africa were efficient and functional with a game plan based around a giant pack and the precision kicking of out-half Joel Stransky.

In the final, New Zealand never came close to their form in the earlier rounds. They looked flat, with even Lomu failing to build up a head of steam. Yet, South Africa could still not put them away until Stransky's winning drop-goal in injury-time.

It then emerged that the majority of the All Blacks squad had been laid low with food poisoning and we had the 'Suziegate' scandal revolving around the mysterious waitress who had, allegedly, tampered with the New Zealanders' food.

The All Blacks also had to put up with their sleep being disrupted by fire alarms being set off and Afrikaners beeping their car-horns through the night outside their team hotel. None of this is dealt with in the film. And, while the iconic image from that tournament is Mandela and Pienaar holding the trophy aloft in their Springbok jerseys, the truer picture occurred in the semi-final in Durban.

That match between France and South Africa was in danger of being called off due to the torrential conditions, but there was no way the South Africans were going to allow that to happen as tournament rules would put France through.

Instead, a line of middle-aged black women took to the pitch in their bare feet with sweeping brushes, while the predominantly white crowd looked on. Plus ca change...

The game went ahead in farcical, swamp-like conditions with the Springboks sneaking through 19-15 courtesy of a shameful decision which denied France a perfectly legitimate try.

Again, no details of this are chronicled in Eastwood's film as they would obviously detract from the overall feel-good factor. Based on John Carlin's book, Eastwood has told a good story, but it is a story whose truth lies just as much with what has been left out as left in.

Irish Independent

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