I’ll admit that after having watched Invictus I didn’t feel the drive to read the story that inspired the movie. Despite many of the over-the-top cheesy Disneyesque feel-good sports moments dramatically overplayed in the movie, Invictus was a decent flick with a classic performance by good old Morgan Freeman. Before watching it I didn’t know much about Nelson Mandela other than he was an Nobel laureate and key instrument in ending Apartheid. Invictus did a great job of showing Mandela’s diplomatic and charismatic persona while revealing the curious fact that Mandela artfully used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as pivotal tool to mend the disparities of race in South Africa. I turned to the book, Playing the Enemy, only because it was highly recommended by a reputable source who both read the book and saw the movie and concluded that Carlin’s book was helpful in providing the historical and social back-story to the relationship of Rugby, race, and politics in Mandela’s South Africa.
While reading it (with Morgan Freeman’s archetypal voice narrating in my head) I was surprised to find that many of the roll-your-eyes Hollywood moments such as the plane flying low over the stadium at the opening of the world-cup championship game, the overtime last minute victory against the New Zealand All Blacks, the post-victory ecstatic hugging of just about every white Afrikaner and black countryman, and the Sprinkbok captain’s bold proclamation that their success wasn’t because “we didn’t have 62,000 fans behind us. We had 43 million South Africans,” (242) were actually all true occurrences. Knowing this, I wish that I had read the book before the movie because I would have better appreciated some of the scenes I presumed to be overindulgent dramatization.
While the movie does tend to admittedly over-dramatize, John’s Carlin’s book is a worthy read that provides a lot of helpful back-story regarding Mandela’s incarceration, a brief history of the colonization of South Africa, the development of apartheid, and the tensions that were threatening to tear apart the country when Mandela was released from prison. With all the violence and genocide that we have witnessed in the African continent throughout the past few decades it is truly amazing that the country of South Africa was not subjected to the same fate as its northern neighbors. This is especially true when one considers the privilege gained by the white Afrikaner in Apartheid South Africa and the extreme political views of the disparate parties of the black South Africans. These two dissident people were like a match to a pile a kindle and Mandela is truly a hero to his nation for his ability to win over the people and assuage many of the building tensions.
Of course the story of Rugby is a major part of the story of Playing the Enemy and John Carlin provides good analogies to the zealotry of American football to explain how the excitement of sport helped bond the people. I will say that in reading each chapter, I found that Carlin’s editing could have used some improvement. The book is mostly chronological and because of this Carlin tends to jump back and forth from explaining events that happened to key people while cataloging the important social and political temperature all while persistently explaining how important rugby was to the Afrikaner and loathed by the South African black. Carlin interviewed a lot key figures to get the facts for this book and because of the depth of his interviews he tends to tell everyone’s story all at once and thus each chapter lacks a distinctive voice. From a reader’s perspective I found this to be a slight annoyance, but from a more symbolic perspective I believe it works because Playing the Enemy isn’t just Mandela or the Sprinkbok’s story, it is the story of all of South Africa.