Sunday, January 03, 2010


I saw Invictus with some friends yesterday, and I loved it. My roommate was bored and took a nap. If I didn't have any background on South Africa and its apartheid policies, beyond what most Americans know, I might not have been as enthralled as I was.

When the movie was over, I asked the friends (there were five of us), to wait for a few minutes afterward, so I could tell them about South Africa before we went home. This is what I told them:

In 1983, when my then-husband and I were on a four-month bicycle trip through Europe, we stayed a few nights at a youth hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. One morning I sat in on a conversation in the women's dorm, with a Coloured woman from South Africa who had left that country and was traveling the world in search of a place she'd be able to call home. I mentioned a story she told, here.

She said the South African government had just begun relaxing some of the apartheid rules, and it was now legal for whites and non-whites to attend the same parties together, at the same time. Interracial marriages were still illegal, and I can't remember whether she said it was legal or illegal for interracial dancing. But it was a change, however small.

She explained the pecking order of the races in South Africa. Imagine a measuring stick as high as you can lift your arm. At the top were the Whites--those people who had all white blood and nothing else. At about waist height was where the Coloureds were--those non-White people who had some white blood, as though any measure of Whiteness was enough to elevate a person to a noticeable level of status.

About an inch from the ground was where the Asians were--primarily those people from the Indian subcontinent. And on the ground were the Blacks.

The educational system reflected this four-tiered status of the races. Whites had good education, with all of their tuition, books, uniforms, and transportation provided free of charge. Coloureds had to pay for their books, but the rest was provided. Asians had to pay for all but one thing (I don't remember which thing she said), and Blacks had to pay for all of it, including transportation from the townships to the schools. With Blacks making very little income per day, and the cost of trains to school taking up a huge portion of that income, very few Blacks were able to send their children to school. So Black poverty was reinforced generation after generation.

In addition to the educational disadvantage, non-Whites were segregated from Whites. Separate "homelands" were established for the Blacks to live in, or for those who had work where White were, there were townships, like Soweto, where they could live. Non-Whites, no matter how wealthy they were, could not live in White areas.

Considering the anger and resentment seething among Blacks, who bore the biggest brunt of apartheid policies and wanted revenge after decades of oppression, this Coloured woman could not see how apartheid could possibly end without violence. Whites feared for their lives if they were to ever overturn apartheid.

(This part I told to my roommate when we were driving home:)

When I was a sophomore in high school, we had to read Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country in English class. It's not a fast-paced book, so most of the students hated it. As far as I know, I was the only one who loved it. The book had a slower pace that I adjusted to, the way a New Yorker who loves the high energy of the city has to adjust to the tropical pace of the Caribbean when he goes on vacation. Paton's book is the story of a Black father's search for his son during the apartheid era of the 1950s, and one or two passages especially stirred my soul.

Later, probably in the winter of 1974, I used the soul-stirring parts of this book as the the main text of the speech I gave (over and over) when I was on the Speech Team in high school. I wish the written word could convey the passion I feel when I recite what I still remember of that speech.

Here is what I remember. I'm not going to look it up, and I apologize to Alan Paton and to lovers of this book if I've left out a line or two or mixed up some of the words, but this sums up the emotional world of South Africa during that time when Blacks were separated and oppressed:

... We shall knock this off our lives and that off our lives and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they will be the lives of superior beings. And we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.

Cry, the Beloved Country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire.

Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all, if he gives too much.

Which brings me to Invictus.

I was reluctant to see the movie, because Nelson Mandela's political party, the African National Congress (ANC) is a socialist party, aligned with an African communist party. I was afraid I'd be spending my movie money on a propaganda piece. But all these friends were going, and so I went as well.

The only propaganda Invictus spread was in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation. If the film is even halfway accurate, then Nelson Mandela was used by God to work a miracle in 40 million hearts. Mandela started with his own staff, whose desire for revenge was a palpable force in the film. By adding Whites in among his longtime staff members, he sought to lead by example.

Throughout the movie, I was impressed by Mandela, about whom I'd been skeptical before this weekend. By the force of his personality and by his popularity among the Blacks, Mandela single-handedly prevented the violence that the Coloured woman I spoke to had foreseen. And through the course of his presidency, he helped to alleviate the fears of the Whites. The story is told in the context of the country's predominantly White rugby team.

For me the film filled in the post-1983 gap in my understanding of South Africa's race relations, and it left me so much more impressed by Nelson Mandela than I have ever been. I recommend this movie, and I hope that I've given enough background so that you can appreciate more fully just what a victory Mandela won for his beloved country.


Malott said...


I read, and enjoyed, Michener's "The Covenant," which, in novel form, told the story of South Africa from pre-history to maybe the 70's.

The book suggests that there are no blacks in the United States, unless they've moved here from Africa. A white South African would call our blacks Coloureds.

SkyePuppy said...


A white South African would call our blacks Coloureds.

Correct. Except for those two brothers who joined the drum & bugle corps I was in during junior high. They joined about a month before my family moved to Montana, so I didn't ever get to know them (they played horns, and I spun rifles). But their skin was as black as night, and after dark--even under the street lamps--you couldn't make out their facial features, because the shadows were the same color as their skin. Those brothers and any other newly immigrated Africans would probably be considered Blacks.