Ellis Park, 24 June, 1995. It remains, possibly, the most iconic moment in the history of South Africa, post 1994. The Springboks were in combat against their long-time foe, New Zealand, in the Rugby World Cup final. Deep into extra time, a Joel Stransky drop-kick sailed through the uprights. A collective roar of celebration echoed across South Africa; in houses, pubs, shops, hospitals, prisons, shacks, and even among those not so keen on rugby. The nation was ecstatic. We’d never known celebrations like these.

Hollywood reckoned it was worth a movie.

A beaming President Mandela—wearing the green and gold—presented the William Webb Ellis Trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. President and captain lifted the trophy together. Again, the crowds went berserk with jubilant celebration. What a story! It was our first Rugby World Cup since readmission. And we won it, on home soil! The Springbok squad weren’t only world champions, but national heroes.

A new South Africa had only just recently, against formidable odds, emerged from a very troubled past, and all manner of deep rooted and complex obstacles. It felt that many of those had been overcome. The Springbok’s 1995 World Cup victory was the cherry on the top. Their achievement seemed a perfect metaphor for what was happening in South Africa: a glorious victory out of hardship; resilience and unity despite great adversity.

The Movie, the Poem, and the Problem

Hollywood reckoned it was worth a movie. So in 2009 a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Clint Eastwood hit the big screen, starring megastars Matt Damon (as Francois Pienaar) and Morgan Freeman (as President Mandela). It was called Invictus.

The central themes of Henley’s poem include resilience, determination, and the triumph of the human spirit.

This title comes from the poem with the same name, penned by William Ernest Henley in 1975. The Latin word, invictus, can be literally translated as “unconquered, undefeated.” The central themes of Henley’s poem include resilience, determination, inner strength, the power of the autonomous individual, and the triumph of the human spirit against adversity. Stirring themes!

Consider the First Stanza

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

And the Fourth

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Unconquerable. Master of my fate. Indomitable. Undefeated. Really?

One commentator informs me that Invictus serves as “a testament to the human spirit’s indomitable nature and its capacity to rise above adversity through inner resilience, determination, and a strong sense of self…the message is about taking control of one’s fate, being the master of one’s destiny, and not succumbing to the trials that life presents.”

Unconquerable. Master of my fate. Indomitable. Undefeated. Really?

Another One Bites the Dust

Late last year I was saddened to read of the passing of another one of those 1995 Springbok heroes. Hannes Strydom was tragically killed in a vehicle accident, at the youngish age of 58. He wasn’t the first or second loss, but the fifth to die.

The list of deceased Springboks from the 1995 World Cup final makes for sobering reading:

  • Ruben Kruger succumbed to brain cancer at 39 in 2010
  • Joost van der Westhuizen was 45 when he died after a long battle with motor neurone disease in 2017
  • Jame Small suffered a fatal heart attack at 50 in 2019
  • Chester Williams was 49 when he too died of a heart attack, just two months after Small.

Coach Keith Christie died in 1998, from cancer. And let’s not forget the All Black Jonah Lomu, who was player of the tournament; a Goliath type figure and human steam-roller. He died in 2015 after suffering kidney failure.

A Perversely Untrue View of Life (and Death)

Henley’s poem is an eloquent expression of a profoundly truth-denying worldview: I am the captain of my soul, the master of my fate. ‘Amen!’ the humanists shout. These lines define secular humanism with stunning clarity.

Secular humanists remove God, enthrone man, and make homo sapiens the measure of all things. Henley’s poem is the old, classic version of humanism, which is being continually re-stated in popular forms, contextualised for contemporary society. The spirit of Invictus fuels all the self-help books and therapeutic, feel-good psychobabble that abounds in the West today. Its preachers include Oprah, Dr Phil, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Taylor Swift, and Jordan Peterson. Not to mention the material that the motivational speakers spew forth. And perhaps, most tellingly, its preachers include preachers! From the tower of Babel to TBN. What a shame!

We aren’t the masters of our fates; or the captains of our souls.

But stop and consider just how untrue it is. Humanism is completely and fundamentally flawed. Forget religion. Consider the bare facts. How about a dose of reality? An invisible bacteria can flatten you in a matter of hours. A drunk driver can end your life in half a second. A stroke can incapacitate you in moment. Recessions reduce fortunes over night. And I could go on and on, with these sobering permutations.

We aren’t the masters of our fates; or the captains of our souls. The victorious, seemingly invincible Springboks will all pass on. They won’t go out in a blaze of glory. For many, their bodies will be old or diseased, frail and feeble. Ditto for you and me.

There Is Only One, True Invictus

You won’t find the grave of the true Invictus.

His whole life was one of humility and servanthood—not self-glory. He conquered by death, through being rejected and alienated; by being weak, not strong. Only you won’t find the grave of the true Invictus. He was raised up for the redemption of his people. Easter Sunday changed all history and the story of the cosmos: He was resurrected. He is our glorious God, the indestructible Lord who conquered death. His is the great victory. Our only hope. Sober up! And look to him.