With 2021 being my first year as a member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby club, it’s only fitting that the next poem in this series is inspired by Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s movie about the long-reviled Springboks of South Africa and their climb, against impossible odds, to a World Cup title (contested fiercely by New Zealand’s indomitable Warriors).
This poem, based on the 34th Psalm, is in Mandela’s voice (played by Morgan Freeman in the film), addressing his own government, as to why he wishes not to see the Springboks dissolved or stripped of their colors and their hated name, which had so long been a byword of the apartheid security forces’ closed and brutally chauvinist culture.
For decades, freedom fighters in South Africa would cheer for any team that scored against their own country’s Springboks. Mandela miraculously turned that dynamic around, in one small but very astute gesture among many, many bridge-building endeavors he undertook during his presidency. His goal was to prevent white flight (i.e., capital flight), and to prevent South Africa from carrying forward the bitterness that characterized apartheid and the seemingly interminable struggle to achieve one-person-one-vote democracy, last of all African countries.
The title of the film, of course, was inspired by another poem, one which Mandela shares with the Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon) in the film. You can hear Morgan Freeman read William Henley’s Invictus here.
Let us honor our countrymen at all times,
greeting them always with praise and our respect.
In our shared destiny lies hope and glory.
Let the poorest among us hear and rejoice.
Join in their victory chant and celebrate,
let us sing out our anthem for one and all.
I sought your trust and theirs, and you answered me,
and from the bowels of their prisons, I walked free.
They looked on us today and their faces beamed,
their thoughts for the future were no longer dark.
When we turn to ourselves, in our darkest straits,
and stand firm for our beliefs, courage saves us.
The world embraces justice – but remember,
fear of vengeance dogs our reputation, too.
Taste this victory and see what we have won,
the right to treat the vanquished with compassion.
Fear injustice in yourselves, and treat them well,
for their disdain will change, if we allow it.
The leopard is wretched, consumed by hunger,
but man has the means to conquer appetite.
Come and listen to me, you who raised me up,
and I will teach you to know your enemy.
As greatly as you desired your freedom,
as long as you waited to see our flag raised,
with so much of your soul, abhor injustice
and let no more viciousness stain this nation.
Resist the urge to put them down – show fairness,
to uphold the peace we won at such a price.
For the just man is whole before the mirror
of posterity, his children see his acts.
He stands firm in the face of evildoers,
and gives their ways no purchase over his soul.
Cry out when you are injured and he hears you,
quickly he moves to help or to make amends.
The just man gives his hand to the exhausted,
he finds the words to heal those crushed in spirit.
No one escapes the scourge of self-righteous men,
but where temperance stands firm, peace is secure.
We felt the weight of oppression in our bones,
and if we visit the same on them, we fail.
Evil can consume the wicked from within,
but it paints the world as guilty in their eyes.
With our compassion we ransom our neighbors,
that we may bear no guilt in our children’s eyes.