Playing the Enemy: Mandela and the Sprinboks

I am really enjoying listening just now (when exercising, working in the garden etc) to John Carlin’s ‘Playing the Enemy‘, read by the outstanding gravel voice of Saul Reichlin.



This was the book which led to the film Invictus.

I thought I knew quite a lot about this story, but Carlin brings in a range of characters, both the famous and the not so famous, to illustrate his central thesis that the Rugby World Cup, and in particular the final, played a significant role in defusing the potential for civil war in the new South Africa.

There are some deeper messages about politics here.  In the recent bestseller ‘The Political Brain‘, Drew Westen argues that politicians who succeed appeal to the heart not the head.  Rational argument doesn’t go nearly as far as emotional appeal.  In that context, the emotional impact of the new black President respecting the Afrikaaner’s secular religion (rugby) in such a public way was both dramatic and successful.   The other powerful political aspect of the story is the importance of dealing with your enemies – something also illustrated very well in Obama’s desert island book, Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln.  It’s a fuller, more traditional heavy history than Carlin’s (he writes more engagingly, with a journalist’s touch), but also shows how Lincoln succeeded in part by reaching out to his enemies, though Lincoln was unable to prevent the Civil War which both he and Mandela, in their very different situations, aimed to avoid.

Lastly a reminder of the excellent column Ian Jack wrote on the poem ‘Invictus’ (click here).


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