“Invictus”

(Nelson Mandela graces the Time magazine cover May 9, 1994)

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.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

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.

(From “Invictus,” Latin for “Unconquered”)

**William Ernest Henley wrote this poem, in 1875, where he lay in a hospital bed, a young man diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone. The only way to save his life was to amputate his leg from the knee down, and doctors performed that life-saving surgery. In his suffering, Henley wrote the poem “Invictus”. It has since become a classic that gives all–even life’s most oppressed–the will to go on.

“Invictus,” the movie, took its name from that poem. It stars Morgan Freeman as South African President Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Plenaar, the captain of the rugby team. It details events revolving around South Africa’s win of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Why was that win such an historical achievement? First off, the South African team, the Springboks, evidenced little likelihood of winning, for Australia, England, and New Zealand were heavily favored to beat them. Then, too, the nation was divided. Mandela knew the team needed the support of white Afrikaners, as well as blacks, but with his presidency, unity of those forces seemed impossible.

In a stunningly cohesive move, President Nelson Mandela’s tapped Francois Plenaar, the white captain of the Springbok team, to join with him at a pivotal point, thus inspiring the nation. As a result, the Springbok team toured the nation, visiting youth groups everywhere, instilling in them pride for their national team. The outcome? Against a backdrop of bi-racial nationalistic pride, the Springboks beat the opposing teams to claim the title.

But rugby was just part of the movie’s focus. Its real message was Nelson Mandela’s perseverance, following his own life journey of oppression.

Nelson Mandela, son to a tribal chief, was a college-educated man who went on to achieve his law degree. In 1944, he joined the African National Party, a resistance group who opposed the (white) National Party’s apartheid policies, after 1944. Because of his public stand against segregationist policies, he went on trial for alleged ‘treasonous acts,’ and in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment—doing hard labor for those supposed crimes.

For almost 30 years, from 1964-1982, he spent long days on Robbens Island penal colony in the blistering son of the limestone quarries, chipping rock. His cell was a spartan 8′ X 8′ enclosure. Following that period, he was held captive at Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. During those years, his reputation grew, for he steadfastly refused to compromise his political position to gain his freedom.

Mandela was finally released in February of 1990, and in 1991, at the 1st. national conference of the ANC (held outside South Africa), he was elected President. That event could have precipitated civil war but upon ascending power, Mandela found a way to unify his country—through sports. He bore no ill will towards his captors but embraced all factions in a drive to unify his nation. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

How did the poem “Invictus” affect him? In his 3-decades-long imprisonment, those words (of poet Henley) gave him strength to carry on, despite his terrible circumstances. The great ones find a way to use life’s hardships as building blocks in their journey….

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A lifetime teacher and realtor who's now a published writer, Colleen Kelly Mellor is a humorist first, ever aware of the thread that connects us all. Her works have appeared in the WSJ, Providence Journal, and CNN and NY Times-acclaimed medical blog, kevinMD.com, to name a few. All material on this blog is exclusive property of the author and cannot be reproduced without this author's express written consent.
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