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Mandela planned "Invictus" moment

The then-South Africa president understood that rugby was a religion, as far as the Afrikaners were concerned. And he used it to bridge the racial divide.

Actors Morgan Freeman, left, and Matt Damon at the Los Angeles premiere of director Clint Eastwood's film "Invictus" in Beverly Hills, Cali., on Dec. 3, 2009. Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela and Damon portrays South African Springboks national rugby union player Francois Pienaar in the film. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — “Invictus,” the new film about South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win, shows how Nelson Mandela strategically used the sports tournament to bridge the country's bitter racial divide.

If Americans know little about soccer, they know less about rugby. Still, Hollywood saw the essential human drama at play. Clint Eastwood directs Morgan Freeman as South Africa President Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as rugby captain Francois Pienaar in an adaptation of the book by John Carlin.

“In the confused global times that we live in, an era of chaos and confusion, we don’t really have particularly impressive leaders. There’s a hunger for that kind of leadership,” Carlin told GlobalPost, recapping interviews with Mandela and Eastwood. “The movie feeds that hunger a bit.”

"Invictus" is a sports movie, to be sure. Scrums, tackles and tries dominate the second half. But the film is not so much the story of an underdog team winning a key match in overtime as it is a look at how Mandela had strategically planned for the iconic moment.

Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa's majority rule democracy was still finding its feet. That is why black and white South Africans together rejoiced at the victory of their Springbok team at the Rugby World Cup. Even more than South Africa's dramatic win, hearts leapt at the sight of Mandela striding onto the field wearing the green and gold Sprinbok jersey to stand arm in arm with rugby captain Pienaar. Fifteen years later South Africans still talk about it as a thrilling unifying event.

But Carlin didn’t realize “how conscious and deliberate” Mandela was in using sport as political strategy until he interviewed the former president.

Throughout his 27 years in prison, Mandela’s guards were Afrikaners. Learning their culture — their language, their habits, and most of all, the game they revered with all the faith of a congregation  — was part of Mandela's long-term strategy toward reconciliation.

Mandela chatted about rugby players and matches with everybody from his cell keepers to the head of intelligence and he knew this facilitated deeper bonds than if he discussed politics.

“It took extraordinary political imagination” to see South Africa's long-term possibilities, says Carlin. Mandela understood that to ensure a peaceful transition to majority rule he had to win cooperation and support from the powerful minority.

“My idea was to ensure that we got the support of Afrikaners, because — as I kept reminding people — rugby, as far as Afrikaners are concerned, is a religion,” said Mandela to Carlin.

The black majority often saw rugby and its players in symbolic terms: A violent game played by those who enforced brutal apartheid law.