Film Review: “Invictus” – The Story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup

Tag-line “His people needed a leader. He gave them a champion”

“François, thank you for what you have done for our country.” – Nelson Mandela as he handed over the 1995 Rugby World Cup to SA captain Francois Pienaar

“No, Mr. President. Thank you for what you have done.” – Pienaar

After the fall of apartheid, how did Nelson Mandela seek to build bridges between all his people? How significant was South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win?

To some, rugby and the Springboks (team nickname) were seen as the symbol of apartheid. How did the 1995 South African (now SA) rugby team win over the hearts of the normally soccer mad Black majority?

Always more than mere games, globally, sports can be a powerful force for good and change. The historical 1995 Rugby World Cup is a great example of this. For decades (until the early 1990’s), apartheid meant that the Blacks were often treated as second class citizens. Apartheid was rigidly enforced as a means to enforce white minority control over the SA’s economic and social systems. Policies meant Blacks were disadvantaged in many different areas of society, ranging from education, jobs to areas where they could live.

Rugby and Springbok Symbolism

Rugby has a long history in SA. The game was first brought to the nation by the British. After the Boer war, the game was taken up with greater enthusiasm by the Afrikaners (Dutch speaking settlers). To beat the British at their own game was seen as a way of getting ‘revenge’. A passion soon became a near religion but also a symbol of oppression and as South Africa became more isolated due to international sanctions, its sporting teams reached near pariah status. Throughout apartheid, Blacks in SA loathed the Springboks and all they stood for. In the early nineties, apartheid began to crumble:

* Mandela was released from prison after 27 years

* The ANC (African National Congress) swept into power after democratic free elections.

* Mandela was elected president in 1994.

Long-standing problems still persisted; resentment from both blacks for decades of unfair treatment and violent incidences (Soweto uprising against the use of Afrikaans, the murder of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and the assassination of political figurehead Chris Hani), whites adjusting to their sudden loss of status and the fear of right wing armed uprising. All this, with the eyes of the world watching….


The Rugby World Cup was scheduled to be hosted in SA in 1995. This was the moment, sports mad Mandela saw the perfect opportunity to unite his new nation as one ‘Rainbow’ nation. Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman. Directed by Clint Eastwood) seized this chance. But how would he bring the soccer mad Blacks to cheer for the Springboks, an all White team (expect for Chester Williams) they had been brought up to dislike. Ever the diplomat, Mandela invited then team captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon) to have tea with him. There, Mandela shared his hopes and dreams and stressed that the Springboks were integral to his vision for a new South Africa. He pictured Blacks and Whites cheering for one team as one nation. Pienaar passed on Mandela’s important message to his team mates. The Springboks were to be a driving force for social change. Other measures were taken to promote unity:

The new national flag grew in importance.

The new national anthem “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika” (God Bless Africa) which incorporated the old anthem “Die Stem”, was proudly sung at all SA matches for the first time. 

But the question remained, would the Black majority support the team?

As the tournament progressed, all doubts were forgotten as the entire nation cheered on the team as they progressed to the final. Fear gave way to a sense of collective community. On June 24, 1995 (Johannesburg), before the final against New Zealand; in a powerful scene, Mandela (wearing a green Springbok jersey) went to shake the hands of the Springboks and even more symbolically, the Springboks belted out the new anthem with great vigour.

The dream was achieved after SA defeated the mighty “All Blacks” in a tense final. At the end, the predominately White stadium crowd chanted “Nelson…Nelson”. On this historical day, the ‘Rainbow’ nation was born. A nation which of course faced many problems (and still does) but at least the foundations were laid for a brighter future.

Next year, another chapter of South African sporting history will be written. The 2010 FIFA World Cup will be held in South Africa. The world’s most popular game is coming to Africa for the first time. If the SA team do well then expect the nation to unite behind Bafana Bafana (The Boys) and to build on their own historical 1996 African Cup of Nations win. SA still has many social problems but with each sporting success, it seems the country ‘heals’ both emotionally / spiritually and apartheid fades further into the past. Sport IS a powerful force for change. Nelson Mandela was aware of this and for a magical moment in 1995, he and the SA team truly united their country for the first time.

Published by Wandering & Travelling

A travel website which shares custom made travel itineraries and also covers the arts and culture.

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