I never gave a damn about rugby. Even if it was the dominant game in South Africa where I grew up and every boy I knew played it, I saw it as marginally less boring than cricket and vastly more Neanderthal than soccer. But that didn't stop me from begging my dad to attempt the impossible and find last minute tickets to the 1995 Rugby World Cup finals where the underdog hosts, the South African Sprinkboks (aka The Bokke) were playing the invincible New Zealand All-Blacks. No one could believe that South Africa made it past the quarter-finals, let alone were in the finals, and while everyone knew it would take a Red Sea parting miracle for them to beat the Kiwis, the electricity in the air felt more charged than the fencing that secured our house. This was big.
Big enough for my sister and I, barely knowing what a scrum was, to plead and whine and insist we had to be a part of this cultural event that felt like some kind of national Xanax. The fact that we managed to organize tickets seemed like the first good omen of the day as I excitedly painted my chunky pubescent face with the new South African flag colors. I didn't even care that our seats were separated and I had to sit alone, which was a fairly daunting prospect for a 15-year-old in a crowd of 65,000 people at Ellis stadium.
While the details of the game are hazy in my memory, reflecting back on the day instantly triggers a montage of freewheeling emotions. I remember sitting next to an Afrikaans man. Now hard to believe, but I didn't actually know any Afrikaans people growing up. Yes, I was white, but I was Jewish and so existed in my liberal sheltered bubble of an insular community that was just glad the Apartheid government didn't hate us more than the blacks. I was young and naïve, consumed by mundane teenage fare like my boy crush and how to convince my parents to buy me those jeans. The insidious political evils that were just over the highway and beyond those barbed wire walls could only bury themselves deep in my subconscious, waiting dormant to haunt me later.
But here was this Afrikaaner guy and he seemed nice enough. I quietly sat next to him, scanning the crowds, soaking up the atmosphere of thousands of fans singing 'Ole ole ole ole.' Every now and then, I would turn to Mr. Afrikaaner and timidly ask, "Sorry meneer, what just happened? Did we get the ball? What did the ref just flag?" Near the end, I was squeezing his arm like a woman in labor as the game went into overtime. When the final whistle blew declaring South Africa the victor, he hoisted me on his shoulders as we fist punched the air and screamed like banshees along with an ecstatic country incredulous at this David and Goliath feat we had just witnessed.
The drive home was even better. Hanging out the windows of cars, people screaming and high-fiving, singing, hugging and dancing in the streets, dragging stools and tables from the bars placing them in the center of the road as they sat down to toast their beers. Everyone passing just beeped in unison, drivers patient for what seemed like the first time in a city known for its aggression and lack of road rules. For this one moment, it didn't matter if you were Black or White or Colored or English or Jewish or Afrikaans. We partied like the Rainbow Nation they said we could be. And you knew, This Is Big.
And I assume that's what Clint Eastwood understood when he decided to make Invictus, a movie about the 1995 Rugby World Cup that tells how a newly elected Mandela (Morgan Freeman) had the prescience to realize the power of sports as a political tool capable of bringing together a fractured country on the brink of civil war. Almost 15 years later, I wondered what it was going to feel like to 'relive' that surreal experience and just hoped that the film stayed true to the events and avoided the Hollywood schmaltz that often sensationalizes historical matters.
All objectivity was quickly conceded before the lights went down in the movie theater, which was a smart move seeing I cried from the minute I heard Shosholuza (a South African folk song) play over the opening titles and the tears continued to roll along with the end credits.
Now, I have discussed the movie with many non-South African friends and colleagues all of whom have had varying reactions stemming from the 'hated it' to the 'hope it gets nominated' kind. None of which matches the emotional aneurysm I experienced. I didn't even attempt to critically analyze a film that I was so personally invested in. This film was something far more for me. It was a cathartic outlet and an emotional validation for an experience that was too big to process for many years after.
Right after I saw the film, I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the German actor and musician Jan Josef Liefers, who grew up in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What particularly resonated with me about this story was the part where he talks about going to a dinner organized for Jane Fonda shortly after the fall of the Wall, and when the actress asked him about life under Communist rule he was dumbstruck. "I wanted so badly to tell her everything about East Germany, but I had no idea where to begin. I had no idea where to start it." His inability to explain his life back then stuck with him and influenced his years of silence.
For a long time I had no words when asked what it was like to grow up in South Africa. I struggled to express the colors and the smells and the fears and the passion and the ambivalence towards a country of such extreme beauty and evil. I certainly could not describe that day in 1995, or what it was to experience living in a country's snapshot of realized potential. My tears during the film were not just from nostalgic sentiment and associative happiness but more out of relief that finally, here were pictures that I could point to when I am left searching for words.