Belfast Telegraph

Our leaders should learn from Mandela's brave leap of faith

By Ed Curran

If I had my way, I would have all 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly attend a special screening of the film Invictus in the Great Hall at Stormont.

Having seen the film myself last week in the less-salubrious setting of Belfast's Cityside cinema complex, I think our MLAs would benefit from such an inspirational treat.

Invictus tells the story of South Africa winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup and how this great occasion helped to unite a country deeply divided by racial hatred and apartheid.

I hope as many people as possible in Northern Ireland witness the Oscar-nominated actor Morgan Freeman's magnificent portrayal of Nelson Mandela as the South African rugby side's most famous and unlikely fan.

I had an added incentive to see the film because I visited South Africa shortly before the World Cup and have had the privilege of meeting Mandela on two occasions since.

On that first visit in 1994, dawn was breaking over the squalid township on the way from the airport to the Mount Nelson hotel in Cape Town.

When I switched on the television in my bedroom, I saw an even more squalid image from home. The news was dominated by Northern Ireland and the horror of the latest massacre in the Co Down village of Loughinisland.

We were still experiencing sectarian terror while South Africa was starting to emerge from a far worse conflict.

That was why I and hundreds of other journalists from around the world were invited in advance of the Rugby World Cup to see for ourselves the new beginning, the rainbow coalition of F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. The film Invictus depicts how sport helped to unite a deeply divided country.

Nelson Mandela recognised that he could not build a new nation without the undoubted expertise and experience of the white minority. He pledged support for the South African rugby team even though the huge white Afrikaner players symbolised a culture which was totally foreign and offensive to his followers.

I saw, in virtually every scene of Invictus, something of value to us in Northern Ireland. Applying Mandela's approach requires a mutual recognition of orange and green tradition and culture which has eluded us so far.

Like South Africa in 1994, we have so much divided fire, pride and loyalty in our hearts for this province. If only we could pool these passions into one united voice what a difference it would make to all our lives.

Invictus is a reminder of how inspirational leadership in political life or a sporting arena can have an enormous impact on the mood of a country.

In the film, we see Mandela persuading his black followers to forgive and forget. They know nothing and care even less for the game of rugby which they see as a symbol of apartheid and white supremacy.

Mandela recognised astutely that he needed white as well as black support for his new rainbow nation. He recalled an old English poem, entitled Invictus, which he scribbled on a scrap of paper during his years in prison:

'It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul'

This is the message he conveys to Francois Pienaar, the white South African rugby captain. In spite of being given little hope of progressing beyond the quarter-finals, the team reaches the final and its success is shared by black and white alike, in impoverished townships and affluent suburbs.

The final is nail-biting, but Pienaar's Springboks beat the mighty and seemingly invincible All Blacks with a drop goal in extra time. "What was it like playing before 62,000 fans?" asks the TV commentator of the captain. "We didn't have 62,000 fans behind us," he replies. "We had 43 million South Africans."

Mandela wore a green and gold rugby shirt and a baseball cap at the final. Standing beside him in the stadium when he presented the cup to Pienaar was one of Northern Ireland's most distinguished public servants, the late Sir Ewart Bell, then chairman of the Rugby World Cup organisation. I'm told Mandela had difficulty mastering the Ulsterman's Christian name and apparently referred to him as "Eee...wart".

When I met Mandela some years later at an editors' lunch in Dublin, he wore one of his multi-coloured shirts and regaled us with his self-deprecating humour.

We laughed with him as he lit up the room with his warm-heartedness. It was only when we reached the coffee course that he displayed the tougher, steely side of his character.

At the time, debate raged over the decommissioning of IRA weapons. "What is your advice on decommissioning?" one of the luncheon guests asked Mandela.

He began a long, detailed analysis of the various factions he had to take account of within the African National Congress - some of whom wished to hold on to weapons, while others on the moderate wing wanted to hand them over. Eventually, his questioner interrupted him: "But what is your attitude, your advice, Mr Mandela?"

Mandela looked sternly across the lunch table. He was not smiling now. "My advice? My advice, sir, was simple: do not hand over your weapons until you get what you want."

Those present were left frozen and speechless. We had just seen another Nelson Mandela, the uncompromising militant leader, which led to his imprisonment for nearly three decades until eventually the white minority of South Africa could contain neither him, nor his ANC any longer.

So far in Northern Ireland, no one appears to have made Mandela's leap of faith, in truly turning the other cheek in the face of his enemies and holding out the hand of friendship to his jailers.

Where amongst our politicians today is the willingness to forgive and forget as he did when he walked free 20 years ago? True, we have no more Loughinislands. True, the weapons are handed over.

But where is the political leader who will raise his or her game as Mandela did? To rephrase his prison poem: Who is the master of our fate? Who is the captain of our soul?

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