It is South Africa, 1995. A massive popular movement has seen Nelson Mandela released from prison less than five years earlier and elected the first black president of the new South Africa. The system known as apartheid, the official segregation of the country which kept a vicious white minority in power, has been dismantled and majority rule has arrived.
But although blacks enjoy the first freedoms of civil and political rights, the country is marked by deep divisions. The black majority live in the endless poverty of township slums, while the whites they labour and clean for bitterly oppose the black empowerment threatening their position.
The state of the nation is symbolised by the South African rugby team, the Springboks. With only one black player in the previously white-only side, and boycotted by the black majority of the nation, they are disorientated and flabby, with their white fan base almost willing their defeat in the Rugby World Cup being hosted by the new South Africa they so resent. It is at this point that Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman – certainly the only actor in Hollywood with the gravitas to match the global reputation of the man he is playing) spots an equally against the odds opportunity to heal the wounds of racism and begins an alliance with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).
George Orwell famously noted that sport is war without the guns. In this instance the war is civil war, with the team woefully indicative of the fractious racial politics that seem ever close to erupting in renewed violence. Clint Eastwood’s film is not at its best in re-creating the thrilling spectacle of sporting fixtures, but from the start the inspirational trajectory necessary for any sports movie is found in the way that the fortune of the national team is hitched to the endeavour for national unity.
The political life represented in the film is pleasingly spin-free, rooted in the grassroots activism of public meetings in which the democratic aspirations of the oppressed are given a voice to shape society.
Although class division is the clear product of race in the film, the viewer will search in vain for any reference to the trade unions or Communists that played such an active role in bringing about the new South Africa. Instead the down to earth Mandela – referred to by his political opponents with that term so loaded in current life, “terrorist”, and made to sound so hollow here – is blessed with a messianic commitment to reconciliation.
Sport thus becomes a model for utopia, the euphoria of a sporting comeback uniting former enemies in common endeavour. From war without the guns to politics without the conflict.
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