Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation;
by John Carlin
(© John Carlin 2008; Penguin Books, 288 pages)

"One Team, One Country"; the slogan that brought the 1995 Springboks to victory on the rugby field, and more importantly, brought a country back together again, united under a new colourful flag as ONE people. Not an easy feat, and one that took years to bring to fore, but done with a compassion and panache that only one man could manage; Nelson Mandela.

"Playing The Enemy" is a book about rugby, but as the story unfolds, it holds so much more. Not one to follow rugby myself, I wondered if this month's book club pick would hold much interest for me. By the end, I felt like I was there in the stands as the final game was played on June 24, 1995. I was on the edge of my seat rooting for the boks with all my heart, aware that this game was so much bigger than just a mere rugger game. This game, played on the world stage, was a key piece in the defining moment of healing wounded South Africa's national pride. Every breathe in the nation was held and every eye was keenly aware that the game played was more than sport, but in fact symbolic on so many levels. The triumph of the day was ecstatically sweet, but moreso a triumph over old ignorance, mistrust, and hatred.

The final game would not have held such importance though, if not for South Africa's long and sordid history with apartheid. In 1948 laws were put in place to legally separate the races. Black people were restricted in their movement around cities, and in their rights as a whole. As their restrictions mounted, violence escalated and trade embargoes were meted out by nations around the world in protest to the barbaric laws and policies in South Africa. The sanctions against South Africa even went so far as to ban their sports teams on an international field. The Africaans beloved rugby was grounded. 

One man watched from a jail cell, as his nation slowly collapsed under the weight of its oppressions. That man was Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela was a high-ranking member of the African National Congress (ANC) when he was arrested in 1962 and convicted of sabotage. He was sent to prison at Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, along with several other political prisoners, and remained there for the next eighteen of his twenty seven years of imprisonment. In the book, Mandela's tale is picked up in 1985, when he started the negotiations that began the process of liberating himself and his country. 

John Carlin skillfully relates the details of Mandela's struggles to bring his country together, united as one. Carlin paints a picture of the embattered humanitarian, learning about his captors and their world. The Africaans people begin as an anomaly, but through mastering their language, and learning more about them as a whole, Mandela recognizes that they are people too, scared and not unlike himself. Through skillful negotiations, he gently builds relationships with the white world, that ultimately leads to breaking down the walls and laws of apartheid. 

Well aware before picking up this book that apartheid existed and had ended, what I loved about Carlin's story was his mastery in bringing the human emotion to the story from so many viewpoints. As I poured through the pages, I learned more about the delicate relationships that Mandela crafted, and I found tears in my eyes more than once. So much pain existed in this war-torn country, but Mandela was able to bring the races together as one in a heartfelt victory for the entire nation. He allowed blacks, whites, and all people in between to let go of their hurts and embrace each other as brothers. With Carlin's words, I wept at their hard-won and very deserving victory. 

I leave you with the South African national anthem sung at the 1995 rugby game that brought a nation back together again, via the strong figure of Nelson Mandela. Thank you for sharing this story Mr. Carlin. I truly enjoyed it.

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