Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made A Nation

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made A Nation

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by John Carlin

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In 1985, Nelson Mandela, then in prison for twenty-three years, set about winning over the fiercest proponents of apartheid, from his jailers to the head of South Africa’s military. First he earned his freedom and then he won the presidency in the nation’s first free election in 1994. But he knew that South Africa was still dangerously divided by almost


In 1985, Nelson Mandela, then in prison for twenty-three years, set about winning over the fiercest proponents of apartheid, from his jailers to the head of South Africa’s military. First he earned his freedom and then he won the presidency in the nation’s first free election in 1994. But he knew that South Africa was still dangerously divided by almost fifty years of apartheid. If he couldn’t unite his country in a visceral, emotional way—and fast—it would collapse into chaos. He would need all the charisma and strategic acumen he had honed during half a century of activism, and he’d need a cause all South Africans could share. Mandela picked one of the more farfetched causes imaginable—the national rugby team, the Springboks, who would host the sport’s World Cup in 1995.

Against the giants of the sport, the Springboks’ chances of victory were remote. But their chances of capturing the hearts of most South Africans seemed remoter still, as they had long been the embodiment of white supremacist rule. During apartheid, the all-white Springboks and their fans had belted out racist fight songs, and blacks would come to Springbok matches to cheer for whatever team was playing against them. Yet Mandela believed that the Springboks could embody—and engage—the new South Africa. And the Springboks themselves embraced the scheme. Soon South African TV would carry images of the team singing “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika,” the longtime anthem of black resistance to apartheid.

As their surprising string of victories lengthened, their home-field advantage grew exponentially. South Africans of every color and political stripe found themselves falling for the team. When the Springboks took to the field for the championship match against New Zealand’s heavily favored squad, Mandela sat in his presidential box wearing a Springbok jersey while sixty-two-thousand fans, mostly white, chanted “Nelson! Nelson!” Millions more gathered around their TV sets, whether in dusty black townships or leafy white suburbs, to urge their team toward victory. The Springboks won a nail-biter that day, defying the oddsmakers and capping Mandela’s miraculous ten-year-long effort to bring forty-three million South Africans together in an enduring bond.

John Carlin, a former South Africa bureau chief for the London Independent, offers a singular portrait of the greatest statesman of our time in action, blending the volatile cocktail of race, sport, and politics to intoxicating effect. He draws on extensive interviews with Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and dozens of other South Africans caught up in Mandela’s momentous campaign, and the Springboks’ unlikely triumph. As he makes stirringly clear, their championship transcended the mere thrill of victory to erase ancient hatreds and make a nation whole.

Editorial Reviews

Bill Keller
This wonderful book describes Mandela's methodical, improbable and brilliant campaign to reconcile resentful blacks and fearful whites around a sporting event, a game of rugby…the premise that a single rugby game, even a championship game, could heal three centuries of racial division, dispelling accumulated terrors and hatreds in a magic Mandela moment, is romantic overstatement. South Africa is still a generation or two from racial reconciliation. But Carlin summons many witnesses, from ardent liberation firebrands to white racist bitter-enders, who testify that the 1995 championship match was a profoundly formative moment in the young country's move away from the threat of civil war. By the time Carlin is finished, you'll be inclined to grant him his poetic license.
—The New York Times
Allen Barra
Playing the Enemy is a classic sports-brings-the-community-together story…There is no need to milk the story for false sentiment: A climax with 62,000 fans, mostly white Afrikaners, rooting for an underdog, integrated home team doesn't need melodrama…Carlin has no illusions about the power of sport to eradicate centuries of racism, but he makes a good case that the tournament was, to paraphrase Churchill, the end of the beginning of a new South Africa.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Carlin offers the final dramatic chapters of how then president Nelson Mandela and his wily strategy of using a sporting event-the Sprinkboks rugby team in the 1995 World Cup-to mend South Africa. Carlin, a senior international writer for El País, quotes Mandela: "Sports has the power to change the world.... It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers." After giving an informed capsule history of apartheida's bitter legacy and Mandelaa's noble stature as a leader, the scene is set for the influential rugby match between the solid New Zealand team and the scrappy South African squad in the finals of the World Cup, with 43 million blacks and whites awaiting the outcome. All of the cast in Afrikaner lore are here-Botha, DeKlerk, Bernard, Viljeon-as they match wits with Mandela. Carlin concludes this excellent book of redemption and forgiveness with chapters that depict how a divided country can be elevated beyond hate and malice to pride and healing. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Carlin (senior international writer, El Pais; White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid and the New Football) provides an intriguing and readable addition to the small shelf of books (e.g., David Black and John Nauright's Rugby and the South African Nation) on the role of rugby in unifying post-apartheid South Africa and on how sports and politics can be meaningfully intertwined. Although Carlin focuses on Nelson Mandela's use of the 1995 World Cup rugby championship, which had been uniquely scheduled to take place entirely in South African stadiums, he provides many engrossing anecdotes that illuminate the troubled political atmosphere in South Africa at the time. Carlin depicts Mandela's evolving attitude toward rugby, from his contempt for a sport that represented white South African domination (specifically as represented by the national team, the Springboks), to his consideration of the sport as a tool for unity, to his becoming an actual rugby fan. Nestled within Carlin's stories are valuable insights into the political genius of Mandela both generally and specifically in his role in converging sport, culture, and politics. Carlin's own recent interviews, with Mandela, the rugby players, and various politicians, serve as strong primary-source material. Endnotes and a bibliography would have made the book more suitable for an academic audience. Recommended for high school and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/08.]
—Shannon Pritting

Kirkus Reviews
The Independent's former South Africa bureau chief chronicles the 1995 Rugby World Cup victory that united a divided country. Carlin (White Angels, 2004, etc.) presents a revealing and entertaining insider's view of the improbable events leading to South Africa's upset triumph over New Zealand, which many believe instantly secured a peaceful future for the then-unsettled nation. The Springboks, as South Africa's team was called, may have secured the World Cup trophy, but the real hero of this stirring tale is recently elected President Nelson Mandela, who adopted the mostly Afrikaner players as his own and somehow got the predominantly black population behind them. Carlin shows that Mandela's genius for swaying hearts and minds was nothing new. Jailed since 1964 by the country's apartheid government, the African National Congress leader systematically won over his enemies, from a cruel prison warden to President P.W. Botha. By the time he was released in 1990, Mandela was a celebrated world figure and a hero to many at home. But even after his inauguration in May 1994, South Africa remained on the verge of civil war. The new president was smart enough to realize that his best chance of calming the white minority's anger and fear was by getting a united South Africa behind the celebrated Springboks, who'd been banned from the first two Rugby World Cups, in 1987 and '91, as part of an international anti-apartheid boycott. Carlin follows the events leading up to the 1995 World Cup with a knowing eye for both history and the sport of rugby. But most memorable of all is his portrait of Mandela: an inherently simple man (he rises at 4:30 a.m. every day to a breakfast of papaya, kiwi,mango, porridge and coffee) with a knack for the perfect political gesture, and the courage and conviction to pull it off. A rousing, highly readable piece of history. Agent: Anne Edelstein/Anne Edelstein Literary Agency

Product Details

Recorded Books, LLC
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Meet the Author

John Carlin is senior international writer for El País, the world’s leading Spanish language newspaper, and was previously the U.S. bureau chief for The Independent on Sunday. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Wired, Spin, and Conde Nast Traveler.

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Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a terrific read. Though they are releasing a movie they are missing the best part. I am an ex rugby player but I found the most interesting part takes place in the many years before the match. Three quarters of of the book is Mandela's negotiations with the Boer government during his captivity. I had no idea. It seems he went to great lengths to get to know his captors which included his gaining an understanding of their sporting interests. Later he has to transfer that interest to the Black African majority who hated rugby as it represented their oppressors. It is more a book about Mandela's human insight than the game. The fact that it was a unprecedented and unexpected and yet seemingly destined victory makes great icing for the cake. You needn't be a rugby fan, I am, you don't have to have been in South Africa when Mandela was released, I was, to enjoy this book. I sent it to my mother, father and step daughter and they all liked it. Don't miss it.
Whymsy More than 1 year ago
Masterful This is book is about more than a sports story. This is a story of human depravity and greatness. As well choreographed as any truly great Hollywood film (and incidentally turned into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon) or magnificent epic novel. Beautifully written and told with heartfelt sincerity this book completely captivated me even though I already knew the ending. I was riveted with each turn of the page, waiting in eager anticipation to see how the final triumph was brought into fruition. With the effortless flow of the narrative Carlin delicately unfurls the story like a blooming flower with each page coming together to create a colorful and deliciously scented bloom. Carlin masterfully orchestrates the different firsthand accounts and different viewpoints to put a together a fairly complete picture of the lead up to the South African hosted Rugby World Championship and the crowning jewel of Mandela’s presidentship. He lays out enough background to help us understand how incredible this turn of events were and gives enough individual stories to get the real impact of the situation. His compassion for all sides allows him to understand the differing viewpoints and pass that understanding onto us. Mandela is sketched as a clever, deliberate, politically savvy man raised up for just such a time in his country’s history to help it navigate the choppy waters of fear and impatience. Mandela is a genius; he knew where he wanted to take his country, found a means to get there, and convinced people from very fragmented groups to help implement a plan of action. “One Team, One Country” was not only the motto for the Springboks, but for every South African. Now granted the road from there has been bumpy for the country, but that should not take away from what it has accomplished and can accomplish in the future.
Word-Nerd More than 1 year ago
When Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, the country was still deeply divided by the legacy of apartheid. This book tells the heartwarming story of how the Mandela used his considerable charm and charisma to rally blacks and whites around a game of rugby -- specifically the 1995 World Cup championship match between South Africa and New Zealand. I knew very little about South African politics (and even less about rugby!) before reading this book, but the author provided just enough background to make me appreciate the enormity of Mandela's challenge. This wonderful human interest story is a real winner. (I understand the book has been optioned to Hollywood, with Morgan Freeman slated to star. Is that perfect casting or what?)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read Bill Keller¿s review in the 'NY Times' and thought, wow, this sounds great. I picked it up and found it a terrific story, told dramatically and well. I thought, at first, not being a student of modern South Africa to any great extent, that the portrait of Mandela as this nearly omnipotent force for moral good was a bit overplayed. But as the story progressed, Carlin made his case. I am someone who¿s worked in progressive politics for some time, and I¿m a rugger, so there¿s a lot of resonance in this book for me. Some of the vignettes are terrific: Desmond Tutu stranded in San Francisco and desperately seeking a bar where he can watch the final match Mandela in prison teaching himself Afrikaans and Afrikaner history the largely apolitical and almost entirely Boer rugby team learning the liberation song, Nkosi Sikelele a black member of Mandela¿s presidential protection unit suggesting he wear the Springbok jersey to the final match and Mandela¿s reception from the fans at the match, almost all white, almost all Boers, chanting ¿Nelson, Nelson.¿ and the reaction of the Springbok manager: ¿It was the moment I realized that there really was a chance this country could work.¿ Great read! Pick it up. I can¿t wait for the movie in production now with Morgan Freeman as Mandela, Matt Damon as the Springbok captain, and directed by Clint Eastwood.
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