Even after reading the NY Times review, the book still was not what I expected. Although the main focus of the story was the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the build up to this point was very interesting. The author of Playing the Enemy, John Carlin, tells his audience about the journey Nelson Mandela made through prison, a free election in South Africa, and building a relationship with the sport known notoriously for having an entirely white fan base. Mandela truly is a political genius. He knows exactly how to play his opponent, whether it be the the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, or white South Africa. Yet, ‘to play’ is not exactly the right verb. ‘Playing’ implies Mandela was somehow taking advantage or even brain-washing, but this is not at all the case. Instead, Mandela would learn about his enemy, then relate to them, charm them, and win them over. Mandela was completely honest, every person he spoke to gained a sense of Mandela, then were able to look past his skin color to judge what kind of person he is. In this passage, Carlin describes what Mandela did while in prison to continue his fight for a new South Africa.
“The first challenge was to get to know his enemy… He had two tools at hand: books- through which he learned about the history of the Afrikaners and taught himself their language- and the Afrikaner prison gaurds, simple men, occupants of the lowest rung in apartheid’s great white labor preferment scheme.” (27)
Not only this, but Mandela would take the time to find a more personal connection with every person he spoke to. When first meeting his new commanding officer after he was transfered from his cell on Robbin Island to Pollsmoor, he knew Major van Sittert would be more difficult to win over than his previous officers. Before this point, Mandela knew very little about rugby, because the sport was considered an Africaner sport. However, Van Sittert was a known finatic. Thus, Mandela read the rugby pages of his newspaper in preperation, and he was immidiately able to start a conversation about the sport, including key players and recent scores. Mandela had no problem abolishing Van Sittert’s prejudice against black South Africans.
And this is how the novel continues. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, of Mandela’s political strives. Amazingly, Mandela was able to put his time in prison to very good use. He stayed in excellent physical shape (jogging in place in his cell for an hour each morning), met many influencial South African leaders, and learned the game of rugby. The way Carlin ties all of these accomplishments together, using rugby as a commonality, gives for a unique story.
One of my favorite parts of the story was when Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, the Sprinkboks, first meets with Mandela. Most of the meetings described are between Mandela and a diplomat, a fellow ANC leader, or a South African politician. Yet, Pienaar is, with the exception of his sport’s fame, a much more average person. He was “a typical Afrikaner” (159), Mandela’s words, not the author’s. While waiting to meet Mandela, Pienaar describes his fears. “I was incredibly tense as the moment arrived when I would meet him… I was really in awe of him. I kept thinking. ‘What do I say? What do I ask him?” (160). During the meeting, Mandela discussed rugby and how powerful the sport could be. Although never saying anything directly, Mandela wanted to use rugby to bring together all South Africans. By using a primarily white sport, Mandela could show the Africaners that black South Africa was willing to support them. Pienaar heard the message Mandela was hinting at: “Get out there and win, wear that shirt with pride, certain of my support” (164). I love this aspect of the story, because Pienaar is just a guy, playing a sport he loves. He’s not a politician or a revolutionary, yet Mandela still has a role for him to play. I am about as far as one can get from a rugby player, but knowing that Pienaar could make such a difference playing a game he loved makes me believe anyone can do so.