Dirty Harry Does Diversity.2: Indicting Invictus

(Like the original Magnum Force, this post is a sequel to the first Dirty Harry.)


Of all of Clint Eastwood’s “Sympathy for the Other” movies, Invictus was the most popular in the Land of the Liberals.  J. Edgar (gays), Million Dollar Baby (women), and Gran Torino (SE Asians) all did well but received more criticism than this film about Nelson Mandela did.  I remember the praise it received when it came out in milieus such as the New York Times and the crunchy independent elementary school in Cambridge where I was teaching at the time. The consensus was that it showed how a country can manage a potentially volatile transition of political power without suffering a descent into mass violence.

Eastwood’s career has paradoxically been marked by an obsession with violent revenge, as the Times piece noted:

“Invictus,” a rousing true story of athletic triumph, is also [Eastwood’s] latest exploration of revenge, the defining theme of his career. It is hard to think of an actor or a filmmaker who so cleanly embodies a single human impulse in the way that Mr. Eastwood — from “Pale Rider” to“Mystic River,” from Dirty Harry to “Gran Torino” — personifies the urge to get even. “Invictus” is to some degree an exception, a movie about reconciliation and forgiveness — about the opposite of revenge — that gains moral authority precisely because the possibility of bloodshed casts its shadow everywhere.” (A.O. Scott, Final Score Future 1, Past 0, 12/10/09)

What the Times didn’t note was the double standard implicit in Eastwood’s prior glorification of violent revenge for whites, and his newfound celebration of the moral renunciation of armed revenge when it came to making a film in which the aggrieved party was made up of blacks.  Nor did it say anything about the primary subject of the film, which is really economic revenge, or the decision not to pursue it.

The film purports to be a story of the African National Congress’s peaceful rise to power when Mandela was elected President after the fall of apartheid.  But it struck me as quite a bit more than that.  The film can also be read as an allegory of the preservation of white economic hegemony in the face of the political transition that took place in the wake of the civil rights movement in the United States and the independence movements that toppled the European colonial empires in countries all over the world after World War II.  Released in 2009, following the election of Barack Obama, Invictus was produced at a historical juncture where enough time had passed to observe the results of both South Africa’s transition and that of the United States, Europe, and their former colonies.  For the majority of the newly “liberated” the results aren’t pretty.  A recent issue of Pambazuka News devoted to the fate of South Africa began with the following editorial comment:

“The neo-liberal policies embraced by Nelson Mandela and successive governments of the African National Congress since the end of apartheid with the first non-racial elections in 1994 have meant that the country’s wealth remains disproportionately in the hands of the white minority. Many analysts agree that whites in South Africa – and their elite Black enablers in politics and business – have lived better in the past 20 years of Black majority rule than during apartheid. And at the expense of the Blacks.”

On this side of the Atlantic, the story is similar.  In response to the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma Alabama, Imani Perry posted the following message on Facebook:

“Selma has a 43% poverty rate with a per capita income that is almost 1/3 lower than the rest of Alabama. I just can’t celebrate public figures building political capital and accolades off her history while the city still suffers from the legacy of Jim Crow. Tell me when someone stands on a podium and promises (or demands) something for Selma’s people who changed the world and got very little in return.”

obama pettus bridge

The emotional tenor of Invictus feels like a victory lap – but for whom?  The film is ostensibly a tribute to Mandela, but it struck me as a victory lap for characters in the film who are remarkable by their looming absence: the national and international economic powers that Mandela is negotiating with after his election.  The narrative structure of the film is largely based on Mandela shuttling back and forth between a series of meetings with various trade representatives and a series of meetings with the captain of the South African rugby team.  The series of meetings with Francois Pienaar, the Captain of the Springboks, played by Matt Damon, and Mandela, the President of the new South Africa, played by Morgan Freedman, are the main focus of the narrative.  But the meaning of these meetings is defined in subtle ways by the transitions that take Mandela out of the board room and on to the rugby field.

freeman damon

Freeman’s Mandela looks perpetually bored in the board room.  By contrast, his face lights up whenever he meets with Damon’s Pienaar.  The President seems to take a contrarian pleasure in brushing off political advisors who chastise him from skipping out on the business of the new state to meet with an athlete, not to mention one whose team is publicly associated with their now defeated enemy.  Nothing is said about what was taking place in the meetings he leaves.  We hear none of the voices that Mandela was listening to that left him looking and sounding so glum.  In the following clip, Mandela tells his Chief of Staff Brenda Maziubo that she can tell the Japanese trade commission whatever she wants, as long as she stops bugging him about meeting with them.

As the scene continues, it becomes the only time that the political battles that were taking place in these trade meetings are addressed directly.  Mandela tells his Chief of Staff that reconciliation with whites is necessary because they still hold all of the economic power in the country.  The newfound political power the ANC has gained will amount to nothing without them.  I wish I could find a clip on YouTube of this scene, but its absence is interesting in itself, given the plethora of other clips you can find on YT from Invictus.  The most popular ones have to do with racial reconciliation, whereas the scene I wanted to find contains an open statement about economic racial conflict.  The closest I could find to touch on that theme is one that concludes in Mandela’s reassurance that whites will not be economically dispossessed in the new South Africa:

All of this is of interest today because of 230px-Abahlali_baseMjondolo_Logopublic debate that has grown louder over the last several years about the economic decisions that Mandela had to make after his election. Longstanding protest movements against the economic policies of the ANC hit the mainstream international spotlight with the Shack Dweller’s protests against mass displacement leading up to and during the World Cup that was held in South Africa in 2010.  After Thuli Ndlovu, one of the leaders of this movement, was assassinated last fall, Pambazuka News wrote that “Several leaders of this movement have been assassinated in recent years, amidst a relentless campaign of terror and repression by representatives of the ANC government and other powerful cliques. Abahlali says that a number of its leaders are currently on the assassins’ hit list.” A massacre of platinum mine workers in Marikana brought more attention in August of 2012.

Marikana mine massacre


Things came to a head in the 2013 decision of the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, (NUMSA, which has 350,000 members), to withdraw its support from the ANC and seek power through other channels.  Some of NUMSA’s leaders have also been assassinated.


Irvin JimThe union’s leader, Irvin Jim, traces the roots of this split all the way back to the days following Mandela’s election:  “Within no time, we quickly realized that what we really secured was political power without economic power.”  In a remarkable series of 3 interviews with Paul Jay of the Real News Network, the following exchange took place:

“JAY: The argument at the time–and people that defend that still say that the alternative would have been a bloodbath, that to take on South African monopoly capitalism and to push the revolution further, it would have been such a bloodbath that it needed to go in steps to get to change. That’s the argument they gave.

JIM: I think the South African working class at the time was very mobilized. They’d had very high levels of political confidence. And I refute that. I think that we were sold a dummy, in the sense that there are those who are now writing books–and I think that there’s no longer secrecy about this. There were secret talks that took place before the actual negotiations took place, where some basically cut the deal with the enemy that there will be a negotiated settlement. And I think it has been a raw deal for the people of South Africa, in that our own vision for South Africa, which was there in the Freedom Charter [of]1955 –.

JAY: Just very quickly, some of the main points of the Freedom Charter for people that don’t know.

JIM: Well, it basically called that the mineral wealth beneath the soil, banks and monopoly industries, shall be transferred to the ownership of the people…the people on the ground in the country were ready for struggle, but the leadership was not forthcoming in terms of taking forward that particular struggle, {so} we ended up in the movement in 1969 in Morogoro, if anybody knows that history. The reality is that Morogoro made very serious pronouncement and resolve on what became later on the strategy and tactics of the ANC. It actually took the very firm view that, listen, we do not underestimate the future challenges that the ANC government would be confronted with when it is in power. But that government would have to make sure that the base of wealth of the country is restored back to the ownership of the people as a whole, not to be manipulated by individuals, be they white or black. The reality is that indeed we have not been able to have the leadership after 1994 that used that political power to take ownership and control of the national wealth of the country, to address fundamental question of nationalization, so that we can use that political power to change power relations in society, so that the noble objective that the people are struggling for for so many years can be realized.

JAY: At the time, amongst your fellow workers, and then the union, is this debate being reflected there? Are you now talking about what’s next?

JIM: That debate became very serious debate in particular in 1996. You would understand that at the time there was a clear vision. Nelson Mandela challenged F. W. de Klerk before the election, caring what workers produce, which was reconstruction and development program. He says, I’ve got a plan; where is your plan? But something funny which we started to realize:… Within no time, in 1996, our icon, Nelson Mandela–which we must continue to respect and to continue to celebrate for all his sacrifices…budged under pressure of rating agencies, who basically were continuously, together with the IMF and World Bank, attacking reconstruction and development plan, suggesting that the ANC need to come up with a nuanced policy. And, indeed, in 1996, without consulting anybody in the alliance, he went public to announce the new policy, without negotiating with the alliance. So it was imposed unilaterally.

JAY: So there the argument I assume Mandela and his supporters gave and would give is that the forces of the World Bank and the IMF, the forces of international capital, the forces of South African capital, were so powerful that if there had been a more radical course taken, they could have so undermined the South African economy that it would have created a kind of chaos.

JIM: Yeah, I think I would reject that.”

What Jim rejects, Invictus celebrates.  And more than that: it celebrates it not just in South Africa, but across the world, and particularly in the United States.  The negative consequences of that victory are by no means limited to blacks, though it has hit them hardest.


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