A Boot Against Apartheid
12/09/09
Staff Writer
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He is South Africa’s most famous “Jew boy,” a former athletic hero whose performance one storied afternoon 15 years ago helped Nelson Mandela heal a scarred nation.

Today, Joel Stransky will recapture some of his fame.

A year after his historic, post-apartheid election as his country’s first black president, Mandela, the long-imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, in 1995 did the unthinkable. With the Springboks rugby team, a mostly white Afrikaans squad that to blacks was a hated symbol of apartheid, playing arch rival New Zealand in the World Cup championship game, Mandela cunningly managed to rally the country’s blacks behind the country’s team.

The extraordinary act of political reconciliation in a still racially divided land is dramatized in “Invictus,” the new star-studded film directed by Clint Eastwood, with Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the politically sensitive Springboks captain, the Afrikaaner Francois Pienaar. While Stransky, the only Jewish player on the Springboks, doesn’t figure much in the film, his game-winning kick is given the Hollywood treatment, thrusting him back into public view.

The crew’s filming on-site in Cape Town and Johannesburg last spring was a national event, featuring the American A-list actors. Stransky and many of the other one-time Springboks players spent time with the actors, schooling them in the fine points of a mostly unfamiliar sport.

Stransky enjoyed his time with the actors. “I met them all,” he tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Johannesburg, where, post-rugby, he works as managing director of Altech Netstar, a stolen vehicle recovery business.

Near the end of the film, with the championship game tied 12-12 in “extra time,” Stransky, wearing No. 10 on his green Springboks jersey, attempts a drop goal, similar to a drop kick in American football, from about 35 yards from the goalposts. In dramatic slow motion the ball sails in the air, Stransky and the other players stare, the scoreboard registers three points for South Africa, then the Springboks celebrate when the referee’s final whistle blows seven minutes later.

“Invictus” shows whites and blacks rejoicing together, but it doesn’t show what happened next.

At the press conference following the game, Springboks coach Kitch Christie praised his players for their dedication in defeating New Zealand’s heavily favored team. In his remarks, he singled out “our Jew boy,” who scored the tie-breaking points in overtime and was named Man of the Match, or player of the game.

Everyone there knew whom Christie was referring to. Stransky, who is played in the film by Scott Eastwood, the director’s son, was that afternoon’s star, scoring all his team’s points in the 15-12 victory.
Stransky, who took no offense at the coach’s non-PC characterization, telling The Jewish Week it was “a term of endearment,” played a crucial role in a game that helped change the face of South Africa.

“We became heroes overnight,” Stransky says.

In the weeks after the game, Stransky received several calls from friends wishing him “Mazel tov!” He was named Maccabi Sportsman of the Year. Endorsements and speaking engagements followed the victory.

Especially from Jewish organizations.

“The Jewish community really embraced me,” Stransky says.

“There was a vicarious pleasure among Jews in the mainstream community seeing a guy with the obviously Jewish name Stransky do what he did in the World Cup — particularly a game with the significance that Mandela gave it,” says Geoff Sifrin, editor of the South African Jewish Report.

Stransky, 42, who was inducted earlier this year into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, is Jewish on his father’s side. He calls himself “a non-practicing Jew,” adding, “I’m proud of my heritage.”

In rugby circles he is known as the “minyan man” because he is the 10th Jew to play for the Springboks. In South Africa, having one player with a Jewish background on the national team is a long-standing tradition.

“There’s an old legend among rugby fans about the Springbok rugby team, dating from the time of Syd Nomis [a star who still holds the team’s record for consecutive international matches played] in the ’80s, that it is always good for a Springbok team to have at least one Jew in it,” says Sifrin. “In a certain way, Stransky fulfilled that role.”

At 5-foot-10, Stransky, who took up rugby at 8 and quickly found success, was the smallest player on the field during the championship game. “He had become a key player by the age of 20 for Natal province, one of the four biggest teams in South Africa,” John Carlin writes in “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” (Penguin Press, 2008), the book on which Invictus is based. “Stransky occupied the one position in a rugby team where neither unnatural speed nor unnatural bulk were required — fly half. The equivalent in American football would be the quarterback, the player who dictates play, in whom brains and ball skill are paramount. He also kicked like a dream.

“The greatest pressure [in the final] was on Stransky,” Carlin writes. “Because of the nature of the position he played, the kicking job, the spotlight would be more on him than on any other individual player.” Other players “could, to a degree, hide within the grunting hurly-burly of the forward scrum. If they made a mistake, few outside the team or the sphere of outside pundits would necessarily notice.”

While Stransky’s life may have been consumed by sports, Carlin writes that his laser-like focus did not prevent him from experiencing two fleeting moments of political awakening. The first was the 1976 uprising by blacks in Soweto, Johannesburg’s iconic township. “It was very clear to me from that moment on that things were messed up in this country,” Carlin quotes Stransky as saying. The second was a televised Springboks tour of New Zealand in 1981 that brought steady anti-apartheid demonstrations. Stransky, Carlin writes, “realized that there had to be a good reason why half of New Zealand was outraged by his countrymen.”

By 1995, apartheid was gone, and black soccer fans were becoming rugby enthusiasts. But the country was still raw, even in its sports preferences. Soccer was long considered the black sport, rugby the white one.

And the blacks who would attend Springboks games, sitting in segregated sections, would cheer for South Africa’s opponents.

But under the banner of “One Team, One Country,” Mandela, alone at first in the black community, embraced the Springboks, appearing at the team’s games and practices, and befriending Francois Pienaar, who came to share the president’s vision of the Springboks as a rallying point for the nation. At the international level, a rugby captain plays as strong a role — or stronger — as the coach in guiding a team.

Pienaar persuaded his teammates’ of the championship’s symbolic importance for South African society. The film depicts Mandela giving Pienaar a copy of “Invictus,” the president’s favorite poem. The poem, by William Ernest Henley, contains the lines, repeated in the film, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

“We all had a sense of the difficulties of our new democracy and its politics, but we were rugby players who wanted to play the game on a world stage,” Stransky says of the 1995 championship. “We understood that we had responsibilities towards the political sensitivities, but it was not our main focus.

“We watched through the tournament as the support base of the Springboks grew and how it became more multicultural,” he says, “but it was only really sometime after the World Cup that we realized the actual significance.”

With South Africa hosting its first World Cup, with the less-experienced Springboks unexpectedly reaching the championship game, with South Africans’ interest mounting in the days before the game, the final was played in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, packed with more than 60,000 screaming fans.

Stransky says he didn’t notice the crowd.

“You’re so focused” on the game, he says. “You’re so focused on what happens between the four [boundary] lines.”

In a scene Stranksy says is portrayed accurately in “Invictus,” Mandela visits the team’s locker room and tells the players the entire country is behind them. Then, in a gesture that helped define his early presidency, he walks onto the rugby pitch before the game to screams of “Nelson! Nelson!” He is wearing a Springboks cap and a Springboks jersey.

“He got the mood right. It was so inspirational,” Stransky says in Carlin’s book. “I would have thought it was completely impossible to ‘up’ the feelings amongst us before the game, but Madiba did. He ‘upped’ us even further.”

Madiba is Mandela’s tribal, Xhosa name by which he is popularly known in South Africa.

“I’ve spent some time with Nelson Mandela,” Stransky says. “I know how smart he is.”

The Springboks were outplayed much of the game. With Stransky scoring, they rallied to tie the game at the end of regulation time. With about seven minutes left in extra time, the ball came to Stransky. From 35 yards away, at a slight angle to the right, “it’s definitely not a gimme,” Stransky says.

“Joel collects and strikes the most perfect drop goal,” Pienaar writes in his autobiography, “Rainbow Warrior” (CollinsWillow, 1999). “It soars higher than the uprights, but passes between them.” Then the game is over. “Our lives change forever. We are world champions.”

Stransky’s favorite memory from the game was Mandela’s exuberance afterwards, “the joy on his face.”

The players were feted at a black-tie banquet that night. The next day, Stransky went to his brother’s wedding.

His value on the rise, he played professional rugby in England for three years, suffered a knee injury, retired from the sport at 31, “moonlighted” as a TV commentator for a while, and then went into the sports marketing business.

“Business is my focus,” he says. “You see sportsmen who don’t move on,” who keep trying to relive past glories. Stransky says there’s “absolutely nothing” from the World Cup game in his office — the only sign there of his athletic past is a bottle of wine from a long-ago celebration. “I don’t want to just trade on something I did 15 years ago.”

Stransky still plays veterans league rugby. One day, he says, he’d like to become a coach.

Fifteen years later, South Africa is still a work-in-progress, he says. Reconciliation between whites and blacks is not complete. “This is not an easy process for the bulk of our country. [It] will take years before the legacy of the past is truly behind us,” Stransky says. “The rugby World Cup played a role for a period and laid some sort of a foundation that future sporting events could follow in terms of uniting a divided nation.”

“Invictus” premieres on Dec. 11. The film will refresh South Africans’ memory of No. 10 and his performance in the World Cup championship. “I am remembered predominantly for the drop goal, but I like to think of myself as much more complete player than just a kicker of the ball,” Stransky says.

He wants his legacy to go beyond sports, he says. “I have the most wonderful family. For the last two years I have successfully run a $150 million company, and next year I am doing an ultra-mountain bike race to raise more money for charity.”

Sports, Stransky says, gave him his initial fame. But he’s moved on “I did so much more.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

 

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12/09/2009 - 10:10

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