Nelson Mandela and the Importance of Culture in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus”

Nelson Mandela and the Importance of Culture in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus”

By David Shasha

The mission of the great South African leader Nelson Mandela took on a strange cast back in 1995.  After many years of personal suffering on behalf of the noble cause of ending the vicious Apartheid system, Mandela found himself leading South Africa as its duly-elected president.  As president, Mandela learned that he would have to modify his understanding of the political problems that his country was now facing.  Rather than acting as a conventional revolutionary figure, Mandela saw that he would have to usher in a process of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Amidst the mutual mistrust of Whites and Blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa, Mandela, as seen in Clint Eastwood’s excellent film “Invictus,” decided to focus his peaceful efforts on the South African national rugby team and its struggle to win the World Cup.

The focus of much political activism often minimizes or dismisses the place of culture in the context of the struggle for change.  Culture is seen as a negligible factor when viewed against the role of protest marches, boycotts, and aggressive partisan advocacy.  The central value of the activist is to confront their enemy until change is brought about.  And in the long battle against the political evils of Apartheid, the same years that Mandela was locked up in jail, the confrontational approach successfully chipped away at the heart of the wicked system.

But in “Invictus” Mandela realizes that as president he would have to reach out to both the Blacks and Whites of South Africa and enter into their personal lives in order to restore the country’s internal balance.  The various characters in “Invictus” split along racial lines: the Blacks continue to harbor deep resentment towards those Whites who oppressed and persecuted them while the Whites resent the newfound freedom of their Black neighbors. 

Mandela finds that his estranged daughter, like most South African Blacks, remains skeptical of his plan to embrace and promote the rugby team which to her continues to represent the evils of the old Apartheid regime.  The largely White members of the rugby team resist Mandela’s attempt to integrate the country by using the national symbols and cultural markers they hold dear.

The brilliance of Mandela’s approach lies in its uncanny ability to acknowledge the place of sports in the personal lives of the citizens he serves.  Rather than continue the revolutionary struggle in the usual ways of confrontation and polarization, Mandela uses the mechanism of culture to tear down the socio-political and racial walls that continue to divide Black and White even after the formal collapse of the evil Apartheid system.  He came to understand that at the very deepest levels of the political struggle people remained united in their humanity and in their love for their country. 

Mandela embraced rugby as a means to tear down the walls dividing people, the walls that caused mistrust and hatred of the other.  He understood that the national rugby team – the colors of its uniform, its White nationalist significance, its embrace of the Apartheid legacy – would not appeal to the beleaguered Black community.  Conversely, he understood that White South Africans would be resistant to the integration of Blacks into their cultural world; a world that had previously shut out the Blacks and kept them out of their everyday lives. 

Both sides would have to re-evaluate their society, its culture, and the ways in which those things played into the perpetuation of the Apartheid legacy.  Just because laws change and political systems are remade does not mean that people are inclined to go along with the changes.  Often the pain of hurt and humiliation overcomes our rational need to come together as a society.

It was the great genius of Mandela to take culture seriously and see in the everyday lives of people the ultimate key in resolving the socio-political conflict between them.  By taking something that many political activists would see as trifling and trivial – a sports match – Mandela was able to unlock a web of malignant mistrust and racial divisiveness that continued to permeate his society even after the formal political changes had taken place.

As I continue to work to raise awareness of the historical culture of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the Middle East, I have found that the same rules apply.  Activists remain wedded to a static system of confrontation that has led to a continuing and intense polarization.  Institutions and political advocacy groups on both the Left and the Right continue a failed program of confrontation that has to this point done little but trap the partisans in an impossible situation where no one really hears anyone else. 

As has increasingly become the case in American politics, the idea is to choose the side you’re on and dig your heels in.  Political orthodoxies are established and deviation is not considered an option.  In spite of the obvious – that nothing seems to be happening to change realities on the ground in the Middle East for those who continue to suffer from the effects of racial and religious hatred and the violence it has engendered – the partisans continue to intensify their failed strategies.  They build higher and higher walls behind which their supporters are ensconced, free to demonize their opponents.

In this failed process, the idea of cultural rapprochement is never given a chance to take hold.  In fact, many who are considered “experts” in the Middle East conflict know little to nothing about the historical culture of the region.  They remain immersed in the vicious cycle of mutual hate and recrimination that has animated the region since the end of World War I and the emergence of independent Arab states and Israel.  Those who advocate a return to a cultural understanding that would clarify the historical complexities brought on by the conflict and its perpetual violence have largely been ignored and made marginal to what is seen as a more “serious” political approach to the matter.

Over the course of Mandela’s bold move to get behind South African rugby, there were the proverbial naysayers who rejected his strategy of cultural symbiosis.  Their wounds and their passions consumed them.  They lost the ability to see human culture as universal, remaining mired in their parochialism and partisanship.  They refused reconciliation; only seeking revenge and humiliation of the other in the name of partisan justice.

Those who continue to embrace the confrontational approach, in the mistaken belief that somehow pummeling the other side into submission will be an effective long-term strategy, stymie our ability to speak in a more intimate way – as Mandela brilliantly did – to the personal lives of regular people, many of whom are confused and perplexed by the partisans and activists who often know very little about who the oppressed are and what animates their lives. 

The divide between the class of political activists, cocooned in their own hermetic world of unbridled passion and advocacy, and the people they deem to be fighting for is sometimes quite pronounced.  It is the difference between politics in the abstract and life as it is lived in reality.  Political activism of all ideological stripes often ignores the centrality of culture in everyday life and marks it as ineffectual and ephemeral. 

The music and literature of the Middle East rarely becomes a part of the ongoing political discussion.  It is not considered important enough to be added to the activist agenda.  The creative work of Um Kulthum, Naguib Mahfouz, and Youssef Chahine is relegated to a secondary status as the hot-button issues of religious conflict, political maneuvering, and military violence take center stage.

It is not that confrontational activism does not have a role to play in the resolution of political conflicts – Apartheid would not have been dismantled without that type of forceful activism.  But in the long term there must be an understanding that political solutions are not static and must begin to address the socio-cultural dynamics of actual human beings.  The constant drumbeat of political activism often serves to completely drown out the nuances of culture.  Poetry and philosophy might not be as alluring for the political activists as protest marches and boycotts, but poetry and philosophy have a centrality in the cultural life of a people that transcends the limitations of the political.

While Westerners remember Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dante, it is less obvious who the political leaders of their times were.  Culture, the work of art, is forever, politics is transitory.  The centrality in our lives of artists like The Beatles, Franz Kafka, and Picasso speaks to the humanity in us.  As Nelson Mandela so well-understood, the resolution of political conflict must at some point take the values of culture that play such an important role in people’s lives.

In the Middle East, this culture can be formulated by our understanding of the term “Religious Humanism”; the heritage of many centuries of Arab life that was able to integrate the three monotheistic communities under Muslim hegemony.  Rather than focusing on the real divisions and inequities of the Arab political tradition, we would do better to understand the elements that brought the three faith communities together and adapt that integrative principle into a liberal understanding of the current socio-political context.  This would mean that those with knowledge and expertise of the historical culture of the Middle East, what I have termed “The Levantine Option,” would be given a more prominent place in the discussion.

The inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela did not end the day he was released from prison.  As we see in “Invictus,” Mandela took the job of reconciliation very seriously.  Rather than maintain the revolutionary approach of the ANC that struck the death blow to Apartheid, Mandela revised his political program to allow for the ascendance of culture in the resolution of the problems that continued to linger in the aftermath of its fall. 

It is this principle that desperately needs to be learned by those activists and partisans who deal every day with the Middle East conflict.  Only by addressing the problem using the language of culture can we address the deepest elements of what continues to be an intractable clash between Jews and Muslims.   


David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events.  His articles have been published in Tikkun magazine, The American Muslim, the Christian Progressive and other publications.  To sign up for the newsletter visit the Sephardic Heritage Google Group at http://groups.google.com/group/Davidshasha 


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