Nelson Mandela

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Sound familiar?

The movie, “Invictus”, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, is based on the true story of how newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby playoffs to inspire and unite his country after the fall of Apartheid. Wow. What a story. And what a great leader! The story and life of Nelson Mandela is going to deserve many more posts in the future.

Nelson Mandela spent over 20 years in prison for his anti-Apartheid activism – while the rest of the world shunned South Africa for their systematic oppression of their black citizens. When Apartheid finally fell, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he was elected President of South Africa by all of the newly minted black voters, who made up 70% or more of the population. At the time, many white South Africans (20% of the population) were afraid of black retaliation or that they would be driven out of the country. Nelson Mandela knew that South Africa’s economy, police and military were still controlled by the whites, and that South Africa could not afford to degenerate into racial violence and hatred. Instead, he chose to leave the past in the past, and start at that moment to unite the country no matter what your color – to create a new blended “rainbow” society. He knew he had to be President not only to the blacks who elected him – but to the whites who distrusted him.

The mostly white South African Rugby Team, Springbok, became one of Mandela’s tools for reshaping how South Africans viewed themselves and their countrymen, and their standing in the world. Through his friendship and mentoring of Springbok’s team captain, played by Matt Damon, Mandela inspired him and every other member of the team to not only play the best they can for themselves – but for their entire country. They were not just a Rugby team anymore. They had to think bigger.

The word “Invictus” is Latin for “unbeaten”. It is also the name of a poem by British poet William Ernest Henley, which was written in 1875 while he was in hospital waiting to have his foot amputated. This poem helped inspire Nelson Mandela to remain strong while he was in prison. Later, he shared this poem with the captain of the Springbok team. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” was a line in the movie – and came directly from this poem.

I like to interpret this as meaning that only you have control over how you think about yourself, and the choices and actions you take. It is up to each one of us to accept that responsibility and become the best that we can possibly be. And if you want others to change – the change must first start with you. For the Rugby team to start winning, each member had to start thinking differently about their own role not only on their team, but in their country and in the world. For South Africa to succeed in creating a new and better society, Nelson Mandela had to rise to the challenge and set a good example through his own behavior. It all starts with YOU.

Here’s the original poem:

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. 1849–1903

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

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.