The Springboks served Mandela's multiple purposes. As the film shows, white rugby players and fans were eventually educated by a series of now famous "teachable moments."
"You're going to have to play. Can you manage that?" Chester Williams smiles broadly as he remembers the question put to him some 17 years ago. Asked to play for South Africa's national rugby team, he didn't hesitate. "I said, 'Just give me my jersey. I want to sleep with my jersey.'"
As thrilled as he was by the opportunity to play for the Springboks, Williams also understood the risk. As recalled in the documentary, The 16th Man, premiering this week as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, Williams was the team's only black player. As such, he was not only subjected to his own teammates' racism (as he wrote in his 2002 autobiography, titled Chester), but also expected to represent the new South Africa, following Nelson Mandela's election in 1994 as the first black president. The following year, when the nation hosted the Rugby World Cup, Williams' face appeared on billboards and posters, emblem of the "Rainbow Nation."
The story related in The 16th Man is much like the one told by last year's fictionalized feature, Invictus. In Clint Eastwood's film, Morgan Freeman starred as Mandela; here he narrates how a "country torn apart by racism" was transformed in part by "the game of rugby." Before 1995, rugby "was a symbol of violent division," as the Springboks were supported by South Africa's white population and rejected by the black majority. The film submits that Mandela used the Springboks as a means to integration, a way to bring together blacks and whites at a singular moment in history.
According to the documentary, Mandela's insight and inspiration made him the team's "16th man." As such, he was, like Chester Williams, broadly symbolic, more aspirational than representative. And this history, like most histories, is revisionist, rewritten in order to affirm and make sense of the present. To this end, the film makes effective use of activist Justice Bekebeke. A rugby fan as a child, he says, he always rooted against the Springboks. He would stand apart from the white fans who had seats: he and other black South Africans would root for New Zealand and other visiting teams who might beat the Springboks, he says. "It was not just about the rugby, the score, at the end of the day. It was how these people who humiliated me every day, me and my parents, it was the same thing the visited on us on a daily basis, they got it on this rugby field."
At the same time, white rugby players like Springboks captain François Pienaar assumed that segregation was "God's will," according to Freeman's narration here. "I grew up in apartheid South Africa," says Peinaar, "I didn’t really ask questions." As the documentary recounts, the Springboks thus represented the divide that Mandela meant to overcome: previously banned from playing in rugby world tournaments, the team in 1995 had a chance to represent the new South Africa. Mandela insisted that the team maintain its name and colors, despite protests by blacks, like Bekebeke, for whom it represented oppression and violence. The move also confounded whites, like conservative leader Koos Botha, who couldn't imagine a united South Africa. As Botha phrases it, the nation before Mandela's election was "separate but equal, so to speak, but not too equal, I must say."
The Springboks served Mandela's multiple purposes. As the film shows, white rugby players and fans were eventually educated -- or at least silenced -- by a series of now famous "teachable moments." One of these, the Springboks' visit to Mandela's cell on Robben Island, is presented here as a transformational experience. Though it's not clear who arranged for this visit, Peinaar and his teammates are visibly emotional now as they remember it. "It was about understanding what happened and the history," says prop Balie Swart. Forward James Small is tearful now as he remembers comprehending the enormity of Mandela's generosity and forgiveness. "It made us all connect with emotions," he says. "We had been put on a pedestal to behave in the same manner."
And this is the point of this remarkable story, that the Springboks and their fans overcame a legacy of hatred and distrust, that the World Cup of 1995 made explicit the politics of sports -- all sports -- in a way that was both powerful and positive. When the Springboks were about to play the New Zealand All Blacks for the World Cup at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium, he was "wearing our jersey," says Peinaar. Footage of the president shaking each man's hand is accompanied by the captain's voiceover: "Never in our wildest dreams did we expect him to wear Springbok on his heart."
Watching the contest on television, Bekebeke recalls that he still resisted rooting for the Springboks. And yet, he was also moved, more by the feelings all around him than by the game itself. "All my hatred is going to gain me absolutely nothing," he remembers thinking. "It is going to make me a very bitter person, when there is so much to live for." It is his transformation, his capacity for forgiveness and life, that serves as climax for The 16th Man.