Friday, June 11, 2010

Tribes and shared values.

I hadn't intended to post something else about South Africa at this time. But I had some reward points to cash in and was buying some DVDs, then due to misinformation given me at the shop I ended up having to buy a third DVD in order to use the $65 credit I had. I ended up getting Invictus starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. I was generally impressed with Clint Eastwood's work on this film.

While the accents weren't spot on they weren't annoyingly off. I believe there was one botched "goeiemôre," one of the rare attempts to put Afrikaans into the film. If there is any reason to complain about authenticity it would be the almost total lack of Afrikaans in the film, especially since it was about the Springbok rugby team and their 1995 World Cup win. I admit being gobsmacked to realize that was 15 years ago, it doesn't seem that long ago at all.

It appears that they used genuine locations for much of the shooting. Even the scenes showing Mandela on his early morning walks through Houghton appeared to be shot at Mandela's actual home, or one that looks close enough to it to fool me. They did have a scene where the bodyguards get spooked when a delivery van pulls around a corner to deliver papers to a shop, and I suspected that was one of the invented scenes for dramatic purposes—I say that because the area in the film would not be within walking distance of the Mandela home.

But the film was pretty much spot on with everything else. Even the shots at the president's office were genuine. I admit not having ever been in the president's office, but I have been just a few feet from it and the scenes in Pretoria were genuine.

The film shows Mandela at his best, which is fine for the message of the film. My main criticism of Mandela was his attempt to cover-up the murderous work of his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the child killer.

If I had to fault Morgan Freeman's portrayal in any way it would be that he simply couldn't capture the charisma of Mandela. I can't put my finger on it, but Mandela is an incredibly charismatic individual. On the two occasions I have been in the same room with him it was clear that he has a very magnetic personality. And the truth was that most white South Africans, contrary to media perceptions, were gaga over Mandela.

When eating in the same restaurant with the man I watched other dinners literally stop eating to stand up and watch him. Cell phones were out and dozens of people were calling friends and family to tell them that Madiba was in the room. A couple of women even stood on their chairs so they could see him. It was virtually impossible to get service as waiters just froze in spot to stare at him.

At a Diana Ross concert he seemed to make a very intentional, obvious, grand entrance. And he did it in a way that completely upstaged Ross herself. But she, like 95% of the mostly white audience were enthralled, which meant a 30 minute delay in the concert as Ross insisted that Mandela join her on stage, from his balcony seat. At his age he moved very slowly and it took at least 15 minutes just for him to work his way down to the stage. Again the audience were in a trance over the man. To say he was despised by whites is not accurate.

Oddly, just as Freeman fell short in showing Mandela's charisma, Matt Damon made a better François Pienaar than Pienaar himself. The real Pienaar just never seemed to be like the man played by Damon. While he was the captain of the team general discussion regarding the players didn't focus on him as much as on other players like Joost van der Westhuizen, James Small, Chester Williams and others.

I know that hard core conservative Afrikaners, in particularly, didn't like Mandela. But that was not the case for most Afrikaners or most whites, by any means. If anything, race relations in South Africa were actually better than most people assumed. The two races were in constant contact with each other, that was unavoidable. In rural areas it was different, but rural areas everywhere are backwards in almost all senses. Most whites never hated blacks and most blacks never hated whites—I suspect the same is true today. The real conflict tended to be tribal, not racial.

The political process didn't produce what most people wanted, that is also true in most places in the world. Governmental policy does not reflect the culture, but is the result of the distortions of the political process. Apartheid was dead in reality long before the laws were repealed. South Africa's electoral system denied equal votes even to whites. Urban white votes counted less than rural white votes. The system was rigged. The odious National Party won elections with a minority of white votes for two decades before getting a majority in a single election. One man, one vote, was not even true for white voters, but I digress.

Given that this wasn't a documentary, but a dramatic presentation, I was happy with the results. The film certainly caught the mood of South Africa at the time of the World Cup. People really did share a moment together. The final match between South Africa and the All Blacks from New Zealand seemed to put a silence over the entire country. I remember the afternoon of June 24th well. I was in the cottage on my property, which is where I worked at the time. The phone didn't ring, no one stopped by, it was dead. The normally busy road that went by the house was rather quiet as well.

I turned on the television in the office. Even though my interest in rugby is limited, as it is for most sports, there is one thing that does attract me to certain sporting events—I love to see people achieve something they have dreamed of doing. I yearn for the "personal best" in others and celebrate with them when they reach a goal. The World Cup itself didn't mean much to me, but the dream of winning it, did.

Life in South Africa was, and is, difficult. The crime situation is so out-of-control that there is a constant tension in the air, a constant fear. True, many people do get "used" to it, but it always takes an emotional toll, no matter how you try to cope with it. So, if there was something that everyone could celebrate together, it was important. Shared experiences are very powerful things—and very dangerous things as well, if misused, as they often are.

Consider the way Hitler used the shared rallies at Nuremburg to inspire tens of thousands of faithful National Socialist to do his bidding. Watch Triumph of the Will, by Leni Refeinstahl to get a taste of it for yourself. (I think she got a bad rap by the way.) When millions of people share the same experience the emotional impact is reinforced and more powerful. Another example was 9/11, something the Bush administration used to rush into ill-conceived and unjustified wars. Because of the shared emotional trauma of the event critical reasoning was shut down, people responded emotionally, not rationally.

Just as there are bad emotions, there are good emotions. And the excitement of achievement is a good emotion. That 43 million South Africans got to share that excitement helped the nation as whole. The process out of apartheid was a traumatic one. Everyone lived in constant threat. Every shopping mall inspected purses and briefcases of people on the way in—to check for bombs. Guard towers were scattered throughout the parking lots to watch for anyone placing bombs under cars. Because African politics is often tribal in nature, the conflicts are made even worse.

The Zulu, of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the Xhosa of the ANC, were in constant conflict. Hundreds of people were killed in those conflicts. Contrary to popular notions most of the deaths were in black-on-black violence, mostly tribal politics. In reality almost all South African politics was tribal. Among black South Africans you had conflict between Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati and Venda for instance.

And among whites there was conflict between the English and Afrikaners. Certainly the Afrikaners never forgot what the English had done to them during the Boer Wars. Over 26,000 Afrikaner women and children died in the British concentration camps. Most of the deaths were among the children and it is estimated that half of all Afrikaner children died under the British incarceration. This set the stage for seven decades of conflict between the two main "white tribes" in South Africa. A great deal of the socialism of the apartheid governments was anti-English in nature because English-speakers tended to own the major businesses.

Understanding the dominant divisions in South African culture and politics will help you understand why the World Cup match in 1995 was so significant. I dare say that nothing prior to it, or since for that matter, actually gave all South Africans a united goal or purpose. Something needs to bind people together, often religion or language has done that. Nations, that are made up of people who share no commonalities, divide and civil war is often unavoidable. \

South Africa was a tender keg because it was made up of multiple tribes that didn't like one another. There were eleven different languages spoken across the country. And the Afrikaners controlled the political process, causing resentment with everyone else, including the English-speaking population, who were the backbone of the anti-apartheid movement.

I don't care for sports that much, except for the pure thrill of seeing victory and achievement, especially for the underdog—I really love that. But in South Africa, in 1995, rugby gave people a shared value. Even I sat in front of my television cheering on the Springboks, hoping against hope for victory, but never sure it was possible. I cheered when the winning kick was made and probably shed a few tears of joy.

When the final whistle blew the silence that had gripped the country was shattered. A collective cheer pierced the air and a cacophony of car horns blasted out a celebration. The streets that had been emptied as people sat glued in front of televisions filled with celebrants of all races. For the first time, the disparate tribes that had long despised one another shared a common value or goal. And, for a few minutes, long-time enemies had put aside their hatreds for something else. That is why, to this day, I can name more of the Springbok players in the 1995 World Cup than I can name for all of American baseball today.

Eastwood's Invictus understood this. Get it, watch it, enjoy it.