Saturday, August 30, 2008

Playing the Enemy

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation
John Carlin
The Penguin Press, 2008
274 pages

John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that made a Nation is a book about heroes, first of whom is Mandela himself. Mandela distinguished himself as a man of history not because he spent 27 years in prison as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but more because of his efforts at national reconciliation following his release and election as President. The other heroes are the 15 some men, largely Afrikaaners; the people responsible for the subjugation of the black majority during the Apartheid era, who made up the national rugby squad, the "Springboks".

Carlin's is not a book strictly about rugby. Nor is it simply an historical account of the extraordinary period of South African history, spanning the period of 1985, where Mandela began secretly meeting members of the government to negotiate his release and the ultimate transformation of South African society, to 1995 and the triumph of the Springboks in the World Cup of Rugby tournament. Along the way, we are introduced to a cast of characters, both of the radical black nationalist set and the most conservative of Afrikaaner Apartheid apologists, all of whom were steered around to the extraordinary vision of national reconciliation as proffered by Mandela.

Certainly, Mandela had less difficulty enlisting the support of his African National Congress brethren. The challenge was to bring on board white South Africa, which was poised to relinquish much political and economic clout in the post-apartheid era. The solution? Rugby, and the chance to host its premier event, the World Cup. Until the nineties, South Africa had not been able to participate in international rugby, owing to the apartheid-inspired international boycott. Rugby is to white South Africa what hockey is to Canada, and soccer is to many South American nations - a national religion.

Mandela set about to use the game as a tool of national reconciliation. The problem? For black South Africans, rugby was as much a symbol of white oppression as was the old flag and racist national anthem Die Stem. Winning over the black population to supporting the game and its almost exclusively white participation in the national program would prove to be a formidable task.

Skeptical at first, Afrikaaners initially threw Mandela's gesture back in his face, using one of the first international rugby matches in South Africa in decades as an opportunity to engage in "counter-revolution", with the loud singing of racist Afrikaaner songs and the unfurling of the old South African flag. However, engaging the players on the national team themselves - they were inspired to sing rounding renditions of Nkose Sikele, the former anthem of black resistance and now half of the new South African anthem - Mandela's charm offensive continued. Soon, the whole country was poised to cheer on the Springboks to victory on the eve of their tournament final match against the heavily-favoured All-Blacks of New Zealand.

Mandela sealed the deal, and effectively united the country for good, when he appeared on the pitch to greet the players in a pre-match ceremony wearing the green and gold jersey of the Springboks. For a black leader, the donning of this oppressive symbol would have been unthinkable even in recent years. Many will recall this pivotal moment, beamed on television screens around the world, as that where Mandela was finally accepted by white South Africa, as their chanting of "Nel-son! Nel-son!" proved.

Playing the Enemy is an excellent and insightful account of the historical events surrounding the astonishing conversion of South Africa to a united country. It also demonstrates how the power of sport can be used as a force of good - even one as violent as rugby!

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