More than the few: on English football and South African xenophobia

The latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa has, as you might expected, provoked comment and soul-searching. it’s distressing to watch the colours of the rainbow nation fragment. This time around other African governments have been drawn to comment, which has in its turn provoked a belated act of leadership from President Zuma. In his impassioned response to a Mozambican writerr’s criticisms of the incidents, Zuma argued that the detestable actions of the wrongdoers were the action of a ‘few’, of a minority.

This sparked a memory for me. A memory of the darkest days of English football. Allow me to explain (even if you despise football, please bear with me; I think this is important). In the 1980s, and into the 90s, English football experienced a period of self-recrimination and examination in the wake of a spate of football-related violence (much of this could also be said to be true of the sport in other nations, but I want to turn the lens on that closest to me). The strictures that resulted from this were severe: expulsion, for a time, of English clubs from the highest level of international club football, a series of changes to the way crowds were policed and legislated. We could also argue that it resulted in the structural changes to the game that resulted in the multi-millionaire culture of today’s Premier League, but let’s not go there for now. As the game’s public image sank, there was a frequent refrain from inside the game. It’s only a few fans

Using comparative statistics, that’s true. In a stadium of 40,000, only a minority would be real trouble makers. Most were indeed there to see the game. It’s true; but doesn’t make the dead and injured any less dead and injured. Various things needed to be done – some of the legislation (though perhaps not all) was appropriate and necessary. In addition to this, there needed to be invitations from those in football to a different way of following the sport; witness, for example, before the 1989 league title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, the Arsenal players presenting wreathes of flowers in memory of deceased Liverpool fans. This two-pronged approach was necessary; but it missed a third prong, one which still lies (largely) unaddressed. The third prong revolves around the inherent problem of something that gives English football such a unique and special identity.

English football has an almost unique culture of fans travelling to support their team, and doing so with a special kind of noise, colour and passion. Globally there are few sporting events with the vibrant appeal of an English football derby (local rivalry); fixtures like Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Tottenham (Spurs) have an atmosphere you really have to experience to believe. This is because of the inherent tribalism in English football; these rivalries go back over a century, drawing fuel from sources wider than sport, into the very fabric of the communities which they represent. As a life-long Arsenal fan living on the other side of the world, the morning of a game with Tottenham, I wake up with a feeling in my stomach best described as adrenalised dread. This is what makes it special; it’s also what makes it dangerous. Fair warning: the contents of the next paragraph may offend.

When Tottenham player Sol Campbell moved to Arsenal, it provoked a storm of protest and anger. The song that some Tottenham fans sung at him ran thus (to the tune of Lord of The Dance): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be/You’re on the verge of lunacy/And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree/Judas cunt with HIV”. Count yourself blessed if you don’t understand all the mental-health, racist and homophobic references in there. Arsenal fans were not blameless. A favourite response was the massed sound of air escaping between teeth aimed towards Tottenham fans. Tottenham has a strong base of support amongst North London’s Jewish community; the sound imitates gas in the Nazi death camps. 

Yes, it was only a few fans who engaged like this. But this hatred, which I’ve seen contorted onto the faces of desperately ordinary people, could only grow in the soil of the tribalism and rivalries at the heart of English football. Not every football fan was guilty; but we are all responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish. Only when we acknowledge that can hatred be removed from football.

So back to South African xenophobia. We need more leadership and legislation. We also need hashtags and demonstrations of other ways to be South African. Some of these we are getting. But a third prong is needed. This third prong needs a kind of self-examination that seems rare in these fevered times. It needs a self-examination that says that all South Africans live under the curse of apartheid, have inherited (as argued persuasively by Professor Jonathan Jansen in Knowledge In The Blood) a view of life based not on shared humanity but on race. I’ve reflected elsewhere how moving to South Africa can make you feel more racist, forcing you to think in a way you never would have.

Since democracy came 21 years ago, South Africa has embraced a flag and a view of proud nationhood which the world loves. Think back to the 2010 World Cup; bad football, but a good face to the world for the country. It’s what makes the country so appealing to many outsiders – hope, life, new identity. Alongside that, the fruit of apartheid continues to grow in the heart of all South Africans; in the soil of proud nationalism, dismissal of the other easily grows. It was well taught by apartheid, and doesn’t go away just because all citizens have the vote. It’s just subtly refocussed. Now it’s the other nations who are ‘the other’. For most that’s benign; for a few, it’s xenophobic. The third prong of attack that’s needed is the humble and gracious self-examination that says that all South Africans have skin in this game, have learned prejudice in the blood and in some way have guilt to bear.

It’s doesn’t appears to be fair at first sight, but it’s really a deeper vision of justice than mere surface level fairness. Christians call it original sin. We’re all guilty. Until that’s owned, expressed and consciously turned from, all the well-meaning efforts of politicians and activists will be of limited effectiveness.

To our knees, then.

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Beautiful

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Sunrise over Table Mountain, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

I’ve said before that we live in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town can be truly breathtaking. The other evening there was an early autumn sunset over Table Mountain that took breath away and prompted a momentary social media awe-struck buzz – similar to the one in the image above. The always changing site of the unchangeable mountain is quite a backdrop indeed.

As I said a while back , though, there’s a few things about this sort of talk that bother me. I’m not an especially visual person; I like natural beauty, but it rarely moves me to awe or worship the way it does for others. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost for words at a landscape. I tend to find God in other ways.

Another aspect to strike me was the way some talked of this striking sunset in such a way as to say that Cape Town is the greatest city in the world. It seemed like an odd reflection; why does an awestruck moment have to lead to comparison and ranking? Can’t it just be beautiful and majestic in and of itself? Most of the world’s biggest cities are built around natural landmarks of some kind  – rivers, harbours, mountains. They all have a particular kind of beauty in the right light and on the right day. I’m a city boy through and through; there was, though, one year I spent in a city I just didn’t like, that as a place did nothing for me. I can still remember, however, 20 or so years on, one sunset in that city which just blew me away.

Which leads me to this: none of this was actually about the city. It was about the backdrop to the city.

Be it the mountain or river or sea or sunset or cloud formation, that’s not the city. It may be over or around the city. But it’s not the city itself. The city is people and what’s made by people. The tangible things made – buildings and roads and monuments – as well as the intangibles of art, culture and community. These are why I love cities and find it hard to imagine living in any other context. I love that dynamics and trends and ideas tend to emerge and take root first in cities. I love that big world events congregate around them. I love that in a city like Cape Town, especially a hub area like that which I live and work in (Mowbray), the nations of the world pass by my door every day.

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town - photography by Bev Meldrum

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

That can bring pain and suffering too, of course. Crime and disease spread quickest in urban environments. One summer’s day in 2005 my wife and I were moving house and job closer to central London when we found our packed car overtaken by streams of emergency vehicles. The date was 7/7.   Such things tend not to happen in more rural areas.

A few days after Table Mountain’s sun-bathed glory, a video started popping up in my social media timelines. It’s a reworking of the video for Pharrell Williams’ song Happy set in Cape Town and featuring the people of the city. It’s not the song’s official video; simply a local contextualisation. There’s two things about this. The first is that if you look up ‘genetically perfect pop song’ in a dictionary, you’ll find this song. It’s irresistible, and does what all good pop music is for. Fair warning: if you don’t know the song and you go listen to it as a result of this post, it will be in your head for the day.

The second thing is this: that the video expressed part of what makes a city beautiful. The people and the streets. It’s not everything – there’s plenty of other emotions and experience to be had here, as there are elsewhere.

This video, though, expresses for me where I find beauty – in people and the things made by them. The art, the buildings, the music, the moves. That’s a city. The mountain, the sunset? Scenery. Beautiful, of course. But scenery. The beauty is to be found in concrete and bone, steel and street.

Next time you take a retreat, consider taking a trip into the city, not away from it. Next time you talk a long walk, think about heading for concrete paving not tree-lined horizons. After all, it’s in the former that you’ll find the image of God, multiplied.

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Cape Town station, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

The strangest tree in the forest: a South African parable

[Jesus said] … 

Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

(Matthew 13:12-15)

We sit on the roots of an old tree. A tree planted well, but watered and cared for years ago by those to whom the land did not belong, who saw in this tree one that suited their purposes. It grew fast and strong, insistently and irreversibly. It grew wide and high, thick and tall. It grew so that there was plenty of room under its protection. It grew so that those descended from the ones who watered and cared for the tree took the best of the shade. They could sit against the tree’s trunk, lie under the abundant canopy, feeling the sun’s warmth and still able to spread out in the luxury of the wide shadow. Food was shared widely and freely in this space. Wine flowed, children played safely, families multiplied to the sound of laughter and ease.

It was not so for all, though. Those who first lived on the land were not so well accommodated. Some lived on the edge of the shade. Sheltered, but not all day. At the hour of the sun’s fiercest glare they found themselves more in the light than shadow, not able to edge in for this when the happy families of the few would spread out the furthest, snoring off the afternoon’s excess. They could not be wakened. The more those on the edge nudged and shook, shouted and pleaded, the deeper they seemed to doze.

So they tried a different tack. Axes in hand, some of those on the edge headed for the tree’s ancient trunk. Silent and slow at first, with each step they grew more confident and strong. Stride lengthened, speed picked up. As they did so they would catch an elbow or ankle of the ones sleeping. Some of them woke up. When they did different things would happen. Some would fling out a hand to bring the walkers down. Often that would work. Others, roused from slumber would angrily shout at anyone who could hear to watch their step and keep the noise down. Some of the walkers turned back, some lay to sleep, some kept going to the tree’s trunk, axe seemingly somewhat sharper for the interaction. Some who had slumbered rose, found an axe to hand and joined the journey to the centre.

The trunk was immense, twisted in on itself, possessed of a savage habit of ejecting inch long splinters into the ground or the people around. The splinters flew indiscriminately, embedding in grass or flesh, person or beast. When they punctured human skin they did so to those asleep and axe wielding alike.

At first only a few brave souls tried to chip away at the trunk. The splinters seemed drawn to them, as if somehow the wood knew who it was that was assailing it. With so few axe-bearers taking so many wounds, it felt like the tree was growing rather than diminishing.

Still they walked, though. More arrived, small numbers at first, but soon more and more until the air was torn with the sound of metal on wood. More axes meant more splinters; more splinters meant cries of pain as splinters found more targets in the flesh of those surrounding the thick trunk. Some of the axe-bearers were felled such was the rain of splinters, but another and then another and then another would step up to take their place.

By now the noise was cacophonous. Few remained asleep; some were awake but pretended not to be; some could read the signs and made for the shade of another tree; some rushed to help, some tried to work out which way the tree would fall and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Soon the tree started to groan and creek, shake and shout. It teased a few times. Those on the ground grew more fearful but there was no turning back now. Axe swing on axe swing on axe swing until … breathless silence, stillness. The tree, as if suspended for a moment, tipped towards the ground in slow-motion … then clattered earth-wards. Some were taken with the tree, shade dwellers and axe wielders alike. Not so many as you’d have thought, though. To this day it doesn’t seem to make sense that more were not taken.

No sooner was the tree felled than work began. To clear the mess, to burn some wood, to clear some space. The roots and some of the trunk remained. Many chose to work together this time – those who formerly had been forced to lie on the shade’s edge, some newly awake former shade-dwellers, blinking sleep from their eyes. They watered and pruned and admired. The tree was growing fast and quick, admired and cooed-over from neighbours far and wide. This was a tree that those under the shade of others around wanted to see find its new shape.

Something was happening to it, however. It was as if, over the years the roots had got all muddled. Some of them were ancient roots going back years into a scarcely remembered past; some seemed to carry within their fibres the sap of the tree of unequal shade; some roots were young and strong, others young and easily broken. As the tree grew again it did so in strange patterns: parts that seemed to carry the code of the old tree, some seemed malnourished and dying or dead, some young and vital and strong. This was a tree the like of which the forest had not seen before.

Some chose to live under this strange new tree as people had its ancestor: taking up more space than was theirs to take, forcing others to a harsh sun they couldn’t bear. Some were generous and wise and invited those on the outside in. Where these folks were gathered there was laughter and sharing, but friction and dis-ease too. Memories of the old tree ran deep in the veins of all, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.

This tree is tall and beautiful, and is admired. This tree grows and blossoms and is celebrated. Parts are sick, though. Obviously so if you’re close enough; from a distance just a subtle part of the pattern.  The sickness is there all the same. Some sleep, some share. Some water and prune just a branch or two; some help others with troublesome growth.

The tree grows, but many in the shade are not at ease. For some are walking toward’s this tree’s trunk. Some of them carry axes, others watering devices, still more tools of different types. It’s only when those walking reach the tree’s trunk that it becomes apparent to those watching what the walkers are carrying. As they watch them walk, they look to their own hands and realise they too carry something. The items feel easy in their hands, for they are that which they choose to carry, speaking somehow of what’s inside them.

Slowly, gradually, one by one, they turn towards the trunk and walk.

Beauty, lies and what the eyes behold in South Africa: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

We’ve been living in South Africa for three and a half years. We’d been living in London up until that point, most latterly in that part of London where you can spend a morning in a coffee shop and hear only South African accents. Before moving we’d made a few South African friends, visited the country twice (one on holiday, once for job interview) and tried to learn as much as we could – watching, listening, talking, asking, reading. It’s been a good move for us. We love living here – the South Africa we found and live in is not the one we’d heard about from the UK media and (some) South African expats. We do miss the freedom to walk streets safely at night; neither do we live in fear. We live in an area of Cape Town some had told us was dangerous. The truth is that it’s safer than some parts of London. We’ve never really felt in any danger – not even driving into the townships. We are sensible and take appropriate precautions; but we also choose not to live in fear.

It’s not easy to move countries, though. There’s the issues you’d have anywhere – losing your extended support network of friends, missing the familiar you’ve had all your life, and not realising you don’t know how to post a letter until you need to do so. All these are destabilising in different ways. The hardest things in South Africa are intangible. Only a fool would pretend London is free of prejudice, but equally diversity is a reasonably accepted and celebrated fact of life. It’s the honest truth to say that in London I just don’t notice skin colour. Cut to a small group of fellow clergy a year ago in Cape Town, and one man is saying to me ‘Dave, what do you see when you look at me?’. ‘I see [his name]’, I said. That was true. That was who I saw.  He didn’t believe me. After ten minutes of trying to explain to him that the first thing I see when I look at a person isn’t skin colour, we gave up. It was too big a cultural gap for us both to cross.

It would be easy to say that’s something he needs to be healed of. In some senses, maybe – but it’s as much for me to be healed and changed. I need to learn what it’s like for people of all ethnicities to live in a context where the colour of skin was the primary mode of identification. The new South Africa is years old now, people are coming of voting age who only know what it’s like to live in freedom. Still the ripples of apartheid spread; poverty traps, issues of race and corruption and justice inflame. As my friend Sharlene, a leading South African social scientist, puts it in one of her books [paraphrase] “Apartheid is like a large worm that has laid many eggs. Even though the worm is long dead, the eggs are still hatching” (‘Ikasi: The Moral Ecology Of South Africa’s Township Youth’ by Sharlene Swartz). It’s this, and issues around it, that make South Africa one of the most challenging contexts in the world to work in – according to an aid worker I know of who has worked in post-genocide Rwanda. You’re navigating a minefield with no map and the mines are constantly shifting.

All of which is a convoluted way in to talk about a novel I’ve just finished reading. Absolution by Patrick Flanery is a debut novel that arrived last year on a wave of glowing reviews and awards nominations. It presents us with a series of interlocking and unraveling stories in South Africa: Sam, a writer researching a biography and simultaneously seeking resolution over his dead parents and murdered childhood carer; Clare, a novelist, is the subject of Sam’s biography, recovering from the trauma of a home invasion and seeking forgiveness for betraying her sister and her fractured relationship with her daughter. There’s something between author and subject, of which we learn in slowly revealed moments as stories are told and revisited. It’s a cunningly told tale – told from different perspectives and shifting back and forth in time. We’re told what characters think is true, but we’re never quite sure what truth is. That and the writing is beautiful – images are spun with clarity and haunting perception. It’s clear and readable on a plane – but it’s never simplistic or dull. It’s a transcendent and magnificent.

It also captures the endless decisions of daily South African life – is it safe with the back door open on a hot day? How much, how often – if at all – should I give to those calling at the door for money? Where are the panic buttons? Is what fear leads me to see true? Why must I keep seeing skin colour before the person – and yet feel like I have no choice? Reading it felt like gazing at a beautifully rendered painting of all the difficult questions I’ve been asked or asked myself over the last three and a half years.

A brilliant novel from a new South African novelist, I thought. Or at least until I decided to find out a little more about the author. He’s an American living in Britain who’s visited South Africa. A couple of times. Which given the depth of insight into South African life – the layers of truth and half-truth, the quarrels of fear and freedom, a recent past of censorship and activism and betrayal, and what it’s like to live in that and all that entails – is frankly staggering. Either the author’s biography is another layer of deception and truth, or he’s a profoundly gifted writer of rare insight, courage and compassion. Given that this is a book which puts into words of heartbreaking beauty parts of your soul you hope don’t exist, I’m guessing it’s the later.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com.

Promising Change

We’re entering a season of promises. The Christian season of Advent – the 4 week build up to Christmas – is an opportunity to reflect on many things, not least that the Christian God is one who keeps His promises; even if to say that may seem counter-intuitive given only the shortest glance at the world around us. The story of the Bible is of God being faithful, His people being faithless. One of the most potentially scandalous passages of Old Testament scripture is of God telling one of His servants to take a prostitute for his wife and allowing her unfaithfulness to be a sermon illustration. Imagine a 21st century pastor getting that one past his accountability group.

Taking the long view, it’s easy to think ourselves into a place of greater faithfulness than the people of Scripture who are so fickle in their love for God. We mustn’t be too hard on them, though. For a while they were plunged into a period of prophetic silence with only ancient stories and promises to keep them going. When would God come? When would they be free? It’s no surprise, then, that many of God’s people missed God incarnate even when He was right in front of them. Besides, are we really good at believing God’s promises, and would we have been then?

Take this one:

I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. “Never again will there be in it infants who live but a few days…” (Isaiah 65:19-20).

That would have seemed a poignant and ironic one in Bethlehem as Herod had weeks old baby boys put to death in a jealous rage (Matthew 2:13-18). It’s there nonetheless, though; when the Messiah finally comes, such a thing won’t happen. Really, sobs the desolate mother? Really, echoes the reply.

So goes the human temptation to judge God. Look at what happens around us? How are we supposed to believe you now? It’s time for you to show your power, we scream or sob.

Show your own, comes the chilling reply.

In 2000 the world’s leaders committed themselves to the Millenium Development Goals. These were a set of promises which said to the world’s poor ‘We see you. We see your situation. We commit ourselves to doing something about it.’ There has been some progress. That’s good.

Not everywhere, though. South Africa, where I live and work, hasn’t made forward progress on two of these promises – to reduce maternal mortality and infant mortality. In fact it’s got worse. Much worse. In most of South Africa’s communities the grieving of the young families of ancient Bethlehem still echoes.

The difference is that this isn’t murder. Something can be done about this. So with two years until these promises need to be made good on, some of us saying that the time is now. There’s a global movement of Christians called Micah Challenge, which takes a cue from God’s words to the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8). The expression of this in South Africa is for ordinary people to make their own promise, and to commit to them with simple photos taken of them with their promises. Children have promised to bake cookies for medical professionals. Adults have promised to do sponsored walks and donate the proceeds to NGOs Adults and children have promised to fast and pray. The end result will be to join these promises together and then present them to the country’s leaders as a reminder and a challenge to live up to the promises they made themselves.

We’re entering a season which invites us to trust that God’s promises mean something. Make that a challenge for yourself, and those who lead.

A big hat-tip to Craig Stewart of Micah Challenge SA for a lot of the input to this post. Find out more about Micah Challenge International and its expression in your country here. See some of the promises made by ordinary South Africans here, and learn more about the campaign including how to add your voice, promise and picture, here.

When the elephant in the room is a bicycle

There once was a man. Think of a name for him. Go on…

He lived in a poor community in South Africa. He lived with his extended family – partner, children, sister and 2 brothers. In a small shack somewhere. He used his bicycle to get to his job as a car guard in a shopping mall in one of the nice parts of the city. One day he came home from work later than usual. Only an hour so, nothing to worry about. But he was so tired (it was after midnight after all), that he forgot to properly secure the door to his shack when he put the bicycle away inside.

In the middle of the night he woke up. He wasn’t sure why. He heard nothing unusual. Just the township night. So he went back to sleep. It was only when he woke up sharp at 5:15 a.m. as every other morning that he discovered what had woken him so suddenly. The door to his shack was ajar. The bike was gone. That was what had woken him. So he got to work late. Which meant he came home early, his job gone. Which meant he couldn’t buy the food his extended family relied on him for. Which meant …. well he kept looking for another job but they’re not easy to come by. Maybe he begged. Maybe he waited by the roadside with the other men every morning hoping for causal labour. Maybe he got ill waiting there in the early morning cold and the torrential winter rains. Maybe he picked another of the desperately few options open to him and out of desperation turned to crime. Maybe…  You decide.

There was another man. Think of a name for him. He was the one who stole the bicycle. He was desperate too. But his motives don’t matter for now. That’s for another day.  A few months later he realised what he’d done. He was in the church where he goes every Sunday. In the midst of the high ceremony of bells and smells, God speaks to him and he’s convicted of his sin of stealing the bicycle. So he leaves the church service, goes to the shack he took the bicycle from, and finds the owner. I’m the one who took it, he said. I realise now what I did was wrong. I’m very sorry. Please forgive me. I want to be reconciled to you so we can be brothers in Christ again.

The former owner of the bike is surprised. He appreciates the courage of the apology. But he’s also angry. You see losing the bike meant he lost his job. Losing the job meant … well, you know. So he told the man – thanks, but … where’s my bike?

Don’t let’s talk about that, comes the reply. That will get in the way of us getting reconciled. Forgive me, and we’ll move on.

Well, the first man says, I can’t move on. Because, you see, when you took my bike, this is what happened….

And he tells him. Everything. Except he can’t, because the ripples of a simple bike theft go on and on in ways we can scarcely comprehend. What he needs isn’t reconciliation. It’s called restitution.

There’s an elephant still lingering in many South African living rooms, churches, poorer communities and nice suburbs. It’s effects linger from years ago. People displaced from communities they knew and loved way back when … and still love. Their old family homes now holiday homes for the better off – now the 2nd generation of better off. Or maybe it’s the death of a loved one years ago from health care she couldn’t afford. Which lead to food not making it to the table. Which lead to hunger, health problems and desperation. Which lead to… well, you decide.

These are painful issues – for everybody. They’re the usually unacknowledged elephant in the room (or, in the image of our story, the bicycle) that lurk behind so many conversations and decisions and actions…on a national, city-wide, community, family and personal level. People understandably want to forgive and move on.

But how do you?

How do you get to restitution?

You decide.

This post was written nearly a year ago and appeared in a couple of different places at the time. I’m posting it on this blog for the first time. It is Dave’s own expression of a metaphor developed by others to help explore the issue of restitution in South Africa. To read about how our good friends at The Warehouse are tackling this and other big issues in contemporary South Africa, have a root around their website here

Invictus: Hope In A Cliche That’s Real

What I like about Clint Eastwood as a director is his economy. In recent times (and my goodness, is he prolific at the age of 80! 7 films in 6 years, and not a bad one among them) he’s tackled some big, dramatic stories. The emotional context of films like The Changeling and Gran Torino could easily have drifted off into grandstanding; that they don’t, and move us gently but powerfully with their stories of ordinary people experiencing something remarkable is down to the subtlety of Eastwood’s direction. He draws controlled performances, and its so much the better for all of us.

Which is why he’s just the man to bring us a film like Invictus. Taken from the pages of recent South African history, as well as John Carlin’s excellent book Playing The Enemy (being re-released under the same title as the film), it’s the story of Nelson Mandela as South African President, facing the unenviable task of balancing the fears and hope of a nation that appears to teetering on the brink of fracture. How does he reach out to the scared, entrenched Afrikaner heartland? He uses their secular religion, rugby, forging a new hope and spirit around the World Cup his country will host and out of which the home team is expected to crash. That they don’t – and how the country united around a uniform, badge and sport that had previously been a symbol of prejudice and division  – is a story of Mandela’s genius for the prophetic act, forgiveness and that unique sporting cocktail of luck and determination.

It’s not a sports film, but it is a film that uses sport as its language. Rugby is a difficult sport to film, but Eastwood strips the scenes live action to their essential, focussing on the sound and fury, the physical combat. If the story of sport in the film seems like a tired cliché, then that’s the fault of the viewer – in sporting terms, he puts on-screen what happened. That it seems unbelievable is not the fault of the film – it’s the very thing that causes some to say that ever God intervened in a sports tournament for bigger cause, it was this one. Sometimes, sporting fairy tales do happen.

So there may be cliché, but that’s because the cliché is there in the truth itself. While, of course, there’s editing and there’s the danger of hagiography when it comes to a character as revered as Mandela, and that will lead to some cynicism or dismissal of a story such as this. It is, of course, the role Morgan Freeman was born to play, even if his accent does vary wildly between the accurate and the non-existent. Matt Damon is brilliant as Francois Pienaar – his South African accent is very good, and his blend of conviction, athletic excellence and a man sensing his calling is greater than he can fulfill builds to a rounded and subtle portrayal of inspirational leadership.

So this is an excellent film, that will I think not get the recognition it deserves because of its subject and the political issues that circle around it. If you click on these words then you’ll see why this story at this time holds special poignancy for me. Indeed, on my other blog (www.offtosouthafrica.wordpress.com) over the next couple of days I’ll address this film from a more personal perspective, looking at some of the issues around it. For now, though, I commend Invictus to you – it’s a story of hope fulfilled; it’s not the story of a finished work, but it’s one that gives energy and belief from what has been for what could yet be. Enjoy.