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Each Person's Soul Is Their Own
By Martin LeFevre
Dec 4, 2021, 12:41pm

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"Invictus" is a film in Clint Eastwood's fine streak directorial forays in the autumn of his career. Though a bit lumbering, predictable and sentimental, it's worth two hours of your life, if only to ponder the arc of Nelson Mandela's political and personal life.

Even in the United States, where Mandela's allegiances and alliances, not to mention some of his statements, have been controversial, the greatness of the man is undisputed.

The most notable line in the movie comes when Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, invites Francois Pienaarthe, captain of the all-white-but-one, apartheid-symbolizing, Afrikaner-elite Springbok rugby team, to meet him in the presidential office.

'Madiba,' as his admirers called him, has a political masterstroke in mind. Walking the tightrope "balancing black aspirations with white fears," Mandela hopes to unify the re-minted South African nation through the Rugby World Cup, which was held in Johannesburg in 1995.

"How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?" Mandela asks the Pienaarthe character, played by Matt Damon.

Despite 27 years in confinement, Mandela spoke of forgiveness toward one's enemies, stirring the Springboks to achieve much more than they thought they could, and at least temporarily unifying the country.

The new president, not long from his 27 years on Robben Island, moved Pienaarthe to lead his mediocre rugby team to victory. The Springboks weren't even expected to make the quarterfinals, yet beat a team in the finals that stood in a class by itself, the ironically named New Zealand All Blacks.

Mandela also spoke to Pienaarthe of what sustained him during his imprisonment. It was, improbably, the Victorian poem "Invictus," whose lines "helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was lie down."

Anyone still standing who is asking, whether there is anything but darkness operating in one's life, and in this world, feels to some degree what Nelson Mandela felt year after year in that tiny cell. "Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul."

Another World Cup took place in South Africa in a sport that had attained much wider reach and appeal. But just before Madiba's highly anticipated arrival for the opening ceremonies, his beloved great-granddaughter, Zenani Mandela, who had just celebrated her 13th birthday, was killed in a car accident.

Even those who steadfastly believe that nothing more than "the bludgeonings of chance" are the cause of this latest, most inexplicable blow to Madiba, are struck by the cosmic unfairness of such an event.

A little history. Mandela felt a deep debt of gratitude toward Castro's Cuba, since it was instrumental in defeating the attempt by the CIA and apartheid government of South Africa to bring down the new Angolan government in the mid-'70's. Their defeat in the late '80's drove a key nail into apartheid.

As George Bush Junior prepared to invade Iraq, Mandela made his famous statement: "What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust."

Madiba wasn't able to initiate a process to redress the deep economic divide in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor, essentially along racial lines, is as wide as anywhere in the world, and crime and violence have exploded in recent years.

Nor has his creation of "The Elders," a now-obscure consultative body originally made up of such notables as Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus, been able to make a difference in the trajectory of the human crisis, despite "offering their collective influence and experience to support peace building, address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity."

However well intentioned and experienced these elders may be, radical change will not come from the above, but from below; not from the old, but from the young; not from political and religious leaders, but from ordinary people reaching for greatness.

Can greatness emerge from ordinary world citizens in America? It seems highly unlikely. As Madiba has said, "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care."

Whatever happens at the geo-political level, as the world shrinks and darkens, we would all do well to take to heart the closing lines of "Invictus," which sustained Madiba all those years in prison:

"It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.

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