When Did President Rajapakshe Watch “Invictus”?

When you watch Invictus – the cinematic “re-creation” of how Nelson Mandela inspired a nation to uphold the spirit of reconciliation and a team to win the rugby world cup – one can but not be blind to the similarities between Mandela’s “technique” and that of President Rajapakshe. Mandela is popularly considered as a torchbearer of pluralism: a man who, in spite of suffering from the scorch of Apartheid for 27 years in prison, emerged to lead the torn southern African country to be a “Rainbow Nation”, to which all communities could collaborate.

Mandela handing over the Webb Ellis Trophy at the Rugby World Cup Finals in 1995

Mandela handing over the Webb Ellis Trophy at the Rugby World Cup Finals in 1995

Mandela – as seen in Invictus – has the charisma, the personality and an empathy with the popular masses, as Sri Lanka’s President Rajapakshe does. Mandela always has a pleasantry to greet the office staff and the random citizen he meets at the rugby stadium with. When the movie-viewer sees the grateful smile which results from Mandela’s admiring of his office secretary’s new hairstyle, a Sri Lankan is not at a loss in seeing the same smile in newspaper spreads and TV news, where President Rajapakshe is seen pinching toddlers, fondling children, kidding octogenarians and sharing his wit, in general. Mandela memorizes the names of the entire South African rugby team and speaks to each player individually, in a way of motivating them. Indeed, this is a ploy – as Mandela’s motivation in memorizing the names, in the first place, is to “appear” to know each of these players. This is a popular leader’s popular trick. Rajapakshe shares many such “popular traits” – familiarity and feigned immediacy being not new to this veteran politician’s repertoire. He even spoke Tamil to the North, dictated or otherwise: something no other Southern Sinhala politician has done.

The remake of the Pineaar-Mandela scene in "Invictus"

The remake of the Pineaar-Mandela scene in “Invictus”

It almost lacks flippancy to state that the difference between Mandela and Rajapakshe – who seems to share so much – is that while Mandela had the will, vision and wisdom in reconciling a bitterly divided South Africa as a multi-cultural, pluralistic union, Rajapakshe is ambivalent and non-committed to such a task. Mandela, at his election victory in 1994, has a majoritarian “black South African” aspirations and anxieties to address. The majority of those who decided to back the African National Congress (ANC) would have had frustrations and dilemmas caused by a history of colonial occupation; and more recently, the breakdowns caused by Apartheid. Yet, Mandela manages to draw a firm line between populism and public policy. He has enough wisdom and courage to say “No” where the future of the South Africa of his vision – a united, pluralistic South Africa – is at stake. In Invictus Mandela interrupts a sports council meeting where a decision was being passed to abolish the name “Springboks” – the traditional name with which the South African rugby team is known: a name and a game, too, connected with colonial culture. Mandela reinstates the name, in spite of the council members’ disapproval, for in that reinstating alone can fear and anxiety that the Afrikaans would feel be dispelled. He sees in the name “Springboks” the tradition and values of a group of his country who are yet a part of the nation, though a numerical minority.

President Rajapakshe, too, watches rugby matches and graces the games when his sons play. In the recent club match between Kandy SC and Navy SC (which was telecast live on his son’s rugby channel), too, the Honourable President and the First Lady were occupying the main seats. President Rajapakshe’s elder sons, in recent years, are seen to alternate the national rugby captaincy between them. For the past four years, the prime motive of the rugby club his sons represent – Navy SC – has been to win the local rugby league.  What they haven’t done to achieve this Lilliputian ambition during the past four years is easily listed than pointing out what they, in fact, have. From intimidation of opposite teams to kidnapping players and the creation of rifts and divisions between teams – leave alone the interference with referees’ decisions – are just a few allegations that are made against what is popularly seen as a “deeply politicized sports mission”. To Navy SC’s credit, though, they have finally managed to win the club title this year – the dirty hard work of 4 years has finally paid off.

Two "Popular" Leaders of our time: Rajapakshe and UNP crossover, Dayasiri Jayasekara

Two “Popular” Leaders of our time: Rajapakshe and UNP crossover, Dayasiri Jayasekara

In a moving scene in Invictus President Mandela received his payslip, of which he is unhappy. Mandela claims that he is being paid more than he should be paid, even though he is told that it is the same salary drawn by his predecessor, HW De Klerk. Mandela cuts down his own pay and this astonishing feat is given wide publicity on national TV. Is this a genuine concern of being “over-paid”? Or, is it a wise trick by a popular leader who has just taken over a country with a shaky economy and widespread suspicion of his capabilities (Personally, I am prompted to opt for the latter)? Compare this with the colossus of President Rajapakshe’s cabinet and the perks and allowances that entail one’s being a member of that Regime. The pomp and pageantry alone drains millions from the tax money of the common, of which a sizeable chunk is redistributed among all kinds of parasites and middlemen.

Handing over the Rugby World Cup to South African captain Francois Pineaar, Mandela says that he is proud of Pineaar’s achievement for the nation. In 2009, following the military crushing of the LTTE, not only did Rajapakshe lose the initiative of re-directing the nation towards a meaningful peace, but he also stood up and referred to himself as a “proud custodian” of the people. The phrase “Adambarakaara Thaaththa” even became a mock, caricatured phrase among many in subsequent years – specially, among the Cyber community. In another context, Rajapakshe had already taken the credit for ending the war against the LTTE. So, the two premises put together, he is seen to congratulate himself and be proud of his own achievement. Mandela’s mission was to relax the international pressure on a nation that had been marginalized and boycotted from the global front. The Lankan regime, in its post-2009 arrogance and short-sightedness, has been courting global dissent in a devil-dancer’s tenacity, giving reason for the global floor to increase pressure on Lanka every summit or conference that is held.

Springboks Fly Half Joel Stransky ready to kick the decisive drop goal during extra time which brought the Boks home to win the 1995 World Cup

Springboks Fly Half Joel Stransky ready to kick the decisive drop goal during extra time which brought the Boks home to win the 1995 World Cup

When President Rajapakshe was chosen as the Head of the Commonwealth at CHOGM 2013, the billboard-sticker printer “Kuma Stickers” had come up with a sticky sticker which was displayed at strategic point in Greater Colombo, congratulating the “Shreshta Nayakaya” (the Great Leader); i.e, President Rajapakshe. “Kuma Stickers” was also printed in large letters at the right hand bottom of the sticker, hence one shouldn’t mistake this act/ad as the epitome of altruism. When Nelson Mandela passed away a few months back, Samabima in one of its issues compared Mandela – the “Great Leader” by action – and Rajapakshe: the “Great Leader” as coroneted by a sticker businessman. But, Samabima, I think, overstates the case. In Rajapakshe and Mandela there are similarities; even though most of them are superficial, as much as some of the others are equally shared with a corpus of popular leaders scattered through history. But, wisdom and vision are rare in humans; nor are they learnt in the party manifesto or the family’s manual guide to nepotism. Perhaps, these alone are the most crucial character-shaping factors that have pushed our beloved national Head a few kilometres behind the South African great.

On a different note, we are almost certain that President Rajapakshe has watched Invictus. If he has not, then he should: for, it would be the ultimate family movie he can enjoy with his family, with so much they could relate to and with so much yet to learn.

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