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Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation Hardcover – August 14, 2008
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From 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 apartheid's bitter legacy and Mandela'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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*Starred Review* Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison because of his position as the military leader of the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid organization. Amazingly, while inside, he actually increased his influence as a resistance leader. In 1994, after his release, he was elected South Africa’s president in the country’s first free election. Realizing that his new government was on tenuous ground and could disintegrate at any moment, he sought a symbolic moment that would unite the black citizenry with white Afrikaners and hit upon the idea of South Africa hosting rugby’s first World Cup. The first step was to convince South Africa’s national team—the Springboks—to get aboard. Mandela’s charm, determination, and patriotism won them over to the point that the team wound up singing the national anthem of the black resistance movement in a much-replayed television spot. Improbably, Springbok—once the sporting symbol of Afrikaner dominance and arrogance—advanced to the cup finals, gathering more fans, black and white, with each win. Carlin, former U.S. bureau chief for the Independent, was assigned to South Africa during the transition from white to majority rule. He personally interviewed most of the principals involved in this fascinating story and undertook the project with Mandela’s blessing. A new slant on the familiar but always inspiring saga of Mandela’s rise to power. --Wes Lukowsky
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Top customer reviews
"Mandela’s weakness was his greatest strength. He succeeded because he chose to see good in people who ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have judged to have been beyond redemption...By appealing to and eliciting what was best in them, and in every single white South African watching the rugby game that day, he offered them the priceless gift of making them feel like better people, in some cases transforming them into heroes.
"His secret weapon was that he assumed not only that he would like the people he met; he assumed also that they would like him. That vast self-confidence of his coupled with that frank confidence he had in others made for a combination that was as irresistible as it was disarming." - from *Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation*
- Karen Molenaar Terrell, author of *Blessings: Adventures of a Madcap Christian Scientist*
John Carlin tells the story of South Africa during the transition period after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and apartheid ended. Whether you are an expert in this era or a neophyte, Carlin's writing and summary of this time is nothing short of superb. He is able to tell the tale of how South Africa managed an almost incomprehensibly huge change in its society without warfare, which is an incredible feat. Carlin had worked in South Africa and as such had background knowledge of the country as well as access to the many prominent figures that he interviewed for the book, including Mandela himself.
The role of rugby in this book is as the thread that ties together the characters from all walks of life who appear throughout the story. It doesn't much resemble the movie in that sense, which relied more heavily on showing the rugby team, games, etc., as the primary driver of the story. The book is far more powerful.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. It is well-written, fast-paced, emotional, and tells a story that would have been unbelievable if it weren't true. As a side note, the poem "Invictus", for which the movie was titled, brilliantly captures the bravery of Mandela and all of South Africa shown in this book.
"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."
Excerpt from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley
Interestingly, this is not a play-by-play of the rugby games. Outside of the final game, little details of the action on the pitch is described, and honestly, even the final game is not entirely descriptive. This book explores more of the juxtaposition of sports and political turmoil. Similar to the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. If you are wanting a story about rugby, it's not going to be your first choice. However, it's an extremely interesting perspective when discussing Apartheid and interesting to see how it was used as a political tool to unify a country that was completely divided.
I'd highly recommend this book. It was a great way to explore the political shift in South Africa in the mid-90's without having to read a book that is written like a news article. The only thing I felt the book was lacking was a bit more background in some of the players on the team.
Playing the Enemy chronicles the birth of post apartheid South Africa and the unexpected role in this of an epic sports contest. It follows Mandela from the beginnings of his contacts with government officials while still in prison, through his triumphant release and election as President. But all this simply provides context for the narrative of a rugby match.
And what a match it was.
Mandela understood that before a new country of South Africa could come into being, what was required was the creation of a population of South Africans, something that had not existed in the era of the Afrikaners and numerous fragmented tribal groups. He seized on the sport of rugby as the unlikely vehicle to make this happen. Rugby had been the exclusive province of the Boer oppressors, and the name and colors of the national team were vilified among the black population. Mandela's amazing leadership turned this around, and the sight of black masses cheering for the Springboks conveyed a potent message of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Read this book to replenish your hope in human potential and possibilities.