“Playing the enemy – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation” by John Carlin, another book about political transformation

Nelson Mandela was only a name to me… After reading this book (which was the basis for the movie Invictus) I’m staggered by the magnitude of what he accomplished. South Africa’s Blacks (80% of the population) suffered some the worst oppression the world has ever known. Apartheid lasted until the early 1990s, then ended without the bloodbath that seemed almost inevitable. Mandela use the force of his personal charm over and over, and it worked. He stuck to his efforts despite grim setbacks, and he had ideas that were creative and surprising.

Where does a leader come from? Why did South Africa fare better than other parts of the continent? Why do other countries suffer so severely and so long?

The “game” in question was a world rugby championship. Rugby was the “white” sport in South Africa, passionately followed by the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who speak a form of Dutch as their first language. Blacks were indifferent to it. The mostly white national team (the one Black player was not a South African citizen), the Springboks (I think that translates as gazelles) were competing for the world championship while South Africa was trying to function as a newly united country. Nelson Mandela had been elected President.

Mandela decided to try to bring Black South Africa into the excitement, to get them to support “their” national regby team. It seemed improbably crazy. But he did it. And the Springboks won! South Africa experienced a moment of delirious unity. The problems of integrated South Africa didn’t disappear overnight, but attitudes shifted seismically.

On the way to telling about the big game, Carlin covers a great deal of important history. Tucked in there is an anecdote (credibly documented) that touches me even more than the big game. (I don’t have the book in front of me, only my notes from 2009. See p 151.) An Afrikaner named Eddie was arming and training a militia for the expected race war. He was angry and very, very dangerous. Mandela agreed to participate (I think remotely) in a radio talk show alongside this declared enemy of black South Africans. Eddie spoke first, and he poured forth hatred and fear and anger. Mandela waited. Finally, he spoke. He spoke about Eddie’s concern for the future of South Africa, about his own love for their country, about the things they had in common. He expressed nothing but a positive attitude. He ended by saying “Let’s talk, Eddie”. The outcome isn’t given in detail, but evidently Eddie took at least a few steps back from his furious position. What was this – diplomacy? charm? tact? a miracle? Is there a way we can learn from this?

So read this book! Nelson Mandela is 95 years old now. He’s left a good documentary record, and we can all be inspired by it.

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