Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book Review: Invictus by John Carlin

You’ve probably heard of the movie Invictus, maybe seen it. I just read the book: John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy, now reissued under the title Invictus. I suggest you read it too. (Those who follow this blog know I rarely make unqualified recommendations. This is one.)

Invictus is the true story of Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president to uniter of South Africa, a country that seemed destined for civil war as apartheid gave way to majority rule in the 1990s. The minority whites had a lot to lose, and many of Mandela’s black supporters wanted to do the taking. Yet Mandela steered a course that balanced the aspirations of the new majority with respect for the whites as partners in a new South Africa.

The process crept along a thin edge, always a slip away from something like Northern Ireland or the Balkans, until June 24, 1995. On that day, Mandela’s most unlikely achievement culminated on a rugby field. To bewilderment from all sides, he had earlier adopted the country’s national rugby team—previously a symbol of white rule and still with no black players—as his own, as everyone’s team. He had inspired the organization, and the players personally, to reach out to black fans, to sing the black version of the national anthem, to be something that represented the whole nation. Now, against heavy odds, the team would play and win the rugby world cup final in Johannesburg. The day would be remembered as much for blacks and whites chanting Mandela’s name in unison as for the victory on the field.

In the words of a Mandela ally, “This was the moment when I understood more clearly than ever before that the liberation struggle of our people was not so much about liberating blacks from bondage, but more so, it was about liberating white people from fear. And there it was. ‘Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!’ Fear melting away.”

Carlin structures Invictus around this unlikely ending, tracing not only Mandela’s path to that rugby field but also those of his friends and foes, black and white. Through their intertwined stories, deftly told, the historical facts and lessons emerge. Among them are the possibility that deeply divided peoples can unite, that a single leader can make all the difference, that the misdeeds of the past don’t guarantee misdeeds of the future.

When this is the stuff of nonfiction, we are all the better for it.

Here’s the book’s link at Amazon.

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