Playing the Enemy

I saw the movie “Invictus” a few months ago, and I absolutely loved it. I found the story riveting, and I was surprised that I had never heard about it before. Nelson Mandela, released from 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner in South Africa, is elected the first black president of that country. As civil war between whites and blacks looms, Mandela wants to draw the country together using the sport of rugby as the unifier. The problem is, rugby is seen by South Africans as a “white” sport, symbolizing the apartheid regime and all the evil that accompanied it. How Mandela manages to pull off the impossible is the stuff of fairy tales, and yet this is a true story!

I came away from this movie wanting to know more about this episode in South Africa’s history, and more about the amazing person–Nelson Mandela. So I went to the library and checked out the book that the movie is based on: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. In fact, since it was my turn to choose the book for my personal book club, my entire group read it, and we all loved it. It’s a bit of a hagiography, but if you can get past that, it really is a thumping good read.

Some of my favorite lines/passages from the book follow. These probably won’t mean a thing to you unless you’ve read the book, but while I put them down here, I’m once again savoring this delicious read.

“If Mandela had learned one thing in prison it was to take the long view. And that meant not being sidetracked by present horrors and keeping his eye firmly fixed on the distant goal.”

“‘Mandela,’ Barnard said, ‘knew how to use his power subtly. It is like comparing old money and new money. He knew how to handle power without humiliating his enemies.'”

“Paballelo was consumed by every detail of the trial. But for the white population of Upington it might have been unfolding in Borneo…Drama works on the premise of a shared humanity with the protagonists. For Upington, Paballelo was dimly lit parallel world inhabited by an alien species; best left well alone.”

“Mandela, as a man of the world rather than a man of one volk, had a capacity the general lacked to penetrate the minds of people culturally different from himself. He knew when to flatter and soothe (Niel Barnard spoke of Mandela’s ‘almost animal instinct for tapping into people’s vulnerabilities and reassuring them.’); he knew when he could go on the offensive without causing offense…”

“‘There was a cause-and-effect connection between the Mandela factor and our performance in the field,’ Du Plessis said…”

“The Argus then listed the five “key factors” that enabled rugby to become ‘a unifying catalyst’: Mandela’s vociferous support for ‘our boys’ and his wearing of the Springbok cap; Archbishop Tutu’s public support; the rugby team acting in concert with the ‘One Team, One Country’ slogan; the team’s success on the field; the singing of the new combined anthem and the waving of the new flag.”

“Mandela’s weakness was his greatest strength. He succeeded because he chose to see good in people who ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have judged to have been beyond redemption…Mandela zeroed in on that hidden kernel where their better angels lurked and drew out the goodness that is inside all people…By appealing to and eliciting what was best in them…he offered them the priceless gift of making them feel like better people, in some cases transforming them into heroes.”


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