Remembering Mandela

Madiba, 1918-2013

Invictus: Race harmony and rugby

How to heal race conflict

Conflicts are easy to begin and much harder to patch up. Deep in the human psyche, we divide the social landscape into us and them - in-groups and out-groups.

Early social psychologists were preoccupied by this problem. Their interest was piqued by the holocaust to which many had lost family members. Social division is such a deeply-seated human characteristic, they discovered, that it may be triggered by arbitrary cues, such as the color of caps that a group of children wears.

This phenomenon was studied in a pioneering experiment conducted in 1954 on summer camp children at Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma. As their first assignment, the boys came up with a group name which they then marked on their hats and T-shirts. There were two groups, the Eagles and the Rattlers who were locked in sporting competitions leading to the award of a trophy to the winning team.

The two groups came to hate each other. They engaged in acts of nastiness and sabotage that alarmed the experimenters. Insults were traded. Flags were burned. Cabins were raided. There were riots in the mess hall. It was a divided society not unlike apartheid.

Having created a nasty problem, the experimenters scratched their heads over how to correct it. It was arranged that a bus would break down and that the two groups would have to cooperate in pulling it up a hill using a rope. Following this shared experience hatred melted away and the two groups began to like each other.

I have no idea whether Nelson Mandela was aware of this experiment but his solution to the problem of hostility between whites and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa applied the same recipe. As recounted in Clint Eastwood's wonderful new movie, Invictus, Mandela schemed to unite his nation behind the Springboks rugby team in a seemingly hopeless attempt to win the World Cup in 1995.

On its face, this seemed like an absurd project because the Springboks were a hated symbol of the apartheid regime. Mandela made two critical decisions. The first was to preserve the name and colors of the Springboks despite determined opposition from his party the African National Congress. He did so because (a) the Springboks were deeply loved by whites and (b) getting rid of the team would make it impossible for whites to cooperate with the new regime. Since whites still owned most of the property and ran the police and army, government could not work without their cooperation. The second decision was to rehabilitate the image of the Springboks. How he did so is a key part of Eastwood's story line.

The movie's center of gravity is Mandela's style of leadership. He was deeply influenced by a youth spent in the court of a Xhosa ruler, or regent. The regent operated as a servant leader. In his autobiography, Mandela describes a true democracy in which anyone (at least any man) could address the rulers. The Regent listened carefully to what everyone had to say before offering a summary of where the day's discussion had led. Mandela compares this to a shepherd guiding his flock from behind so skillfully that they are unaware of any restraint.

Mandela added some key ingredients of his own. You can overpower your enemies with generosity. We see an intriguing example of this in our own day. By extending an olive branch to Iran, Obama deprived Iranians of the U.S. as a common enemy to unite against. This helped magnify internal divisions and the religious regime is so weakened and so lacking in legitimacy that its collapse seems inevitable.