South Africa, February 11, 1990. We hear crowds cheering. Then, we see a white rugby team practicing in a field directly next to a much more downtrodden field, where black kids play soccer. Suddenly, a stream of cars drive by, one of them carrying Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist and revolutionary, and the black soccer players begin chanting his name. The white rugby players gather at their fence across the road, and remain silent.
A white rugby player asks his coach who is passing in the car, and the coach says, "it is that terrorist, Mandela. They let him out. Remember this day boys, this is the day our country went to the dogs."
The scene shifts and we see video footage of the announcement of the news about Mandela's release from prison after 27 years. A newscaster says, "The recent release of Nelson Mandela has triggered a power struggle between the ANC and their black rivals. There are reports that the government has been secretly providing arms to these groups, contributing to the violence that has erupted throughout the country." They report that the country is on the brink of a civil war, but that Nelson Mandela has traveled around trying to persuade the warring groups to make peace.
The scene shifts four years into the future, and the news reports that black South Africans are now allowed to vote in elections alongside white voters. "An estimated 23 million people went to the polls today," a reporter says, and we see Mandela getting sworn in as the first black president of South Africa. He makes a speech about the fact that there will never be racial oppression in South Africa again.
We see Mandela getting out of bed early in the morning. Outside, two men sit in a car and watch him. When he comes out the front gate, they walk with him. Elsewhere, we see a van speeding around some sharp corners and eventually turning onto the street where Mandela is walking. The security men run to protect Mandela, suspecting it's a drive-by shooting, but it turns out just to be a delivery man in a hurry.
Mandela looks down at a newspaper headline that questions whether he will be able to run a country. "It's a legitimate question," he says, and they walk away. The scene shifts and we see Mandela at home, shaving in the mirror.
We see Francois Pienaar, a white rugby player, watching the news on television, as his father rails against the election of a black men. "They're gonna take our jobs, and they're gonna drive us into the sea," he says.
Mandela walks through the halls with his two security guards. An assistant, Brenda, tells him they need to talk about cabinet appointments, as he walks into his office. He stares at the office for a moment, then tells Brenda to gather his whole staff. Many members of the staff imagine that he is going to fire them, and they dread the meeting. After telling his two security guards to stand back, he makes an announcement to his staff that he has noticed some people have left, but that he is not firing anyone, and he does not hold any prejudices against anyone who has worked for the previous government. "If you would like to stay, you would be doing your country a great service," Mandela says.
Jason Tshabalala, Mandela's main security guard, holds a meeting suggesting that Mandela needs more security. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a group of white men, whom Jason mistakes for policemen there to arrest him. In fact, they are the presidential bodyguards, reporting for duty. When Jason sees that their dispatch was signed by Mandela himself, Jason goes to talk to the president.
When Jason shows Mandela the order that he signed, Mandela tells his security head that they are some of the best bodyguards in the country. "When people see me in public, they see my bodyguards. You represent me directly. The rainbow nation starts here," Mandela says. Jason reminds Mandela that recently, those very bodyguards tried to kill black South Africans. "Forgiveness starts here too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon," Mandela says, urging Jason to try and get along with his new coworkers.
Jason goes back to the bodyguards and invites them to join the team. One of Jason's associates, Linga Moonsamy, is skeptical of the choice to have them join the team, but they begin to coach the white bodyguards, who are led by Etienne Feyder. They tell the white bodyguards that Mandela likes it when bodyguards smile when they push people away. "It's the new South Africa," Linga says, and Jason tells the bodyguards that they should call Mandela his clan name, "Madiba." Etienne says that they will call him "Mr. President."
The security guards all discuss the fact that Mandela must be especially protected at the rugby match that is coming up between England and Springboks, the South African team.
The scene shifts to the rugby match, where Francois, the captain, and the Springboks team are introduced to a cheering crowd. Mandela's security team prepares to walk Mandela onto the field for a quick handshake, and Jason advises everyone to keep their eyes on the crowd. They prepare Mandela and bring him out onto the field, where he shakes each of the rugby player's hands. Mandela waves to the cheering crowd before going up into the crowds to speak with the fans. The security guards consider whether to stop him, but decide to follow him instead. He shakes the hands of various fans, before exiting the field. Some cheer, some boo.
The rugby game begins. As the South African team begins to lose, Francois reminds his team to focus. In the stands, Mandela turns to Brenda and tells her they ought to work while they watch. "Where do you want to go first for foreign investment?" Brenda asks, and Mandela says, "America, England, Saudi Arabia."
Mandela then turns to an advisor on his left and asks how long until the World Cup. When he learns that they still have about a year, Mandela says, "Well, it's time enough for improvement." Brenda points out that the apartheid flags are still flying and it is time for people to move on. Mandela notes that all of the white fans are cheering for Springboks, while all of the blacks are cheering for England. Another advisor turns to Mandela and tells him that a meeting of the National Sports executive is considering dropping the Springbok team altogether. "This could be the last time we have to look at the green and gold," he says.
We see the rugby team in the locker room. Francois looks upset about the loss, and we see a news report from a reputable news anchor about their disgraceful defeat. Francois watches and tells his wife that they are going to disband Springboks. His wife suggests that the news anchor is just mad because he never got to play, but Francois insists that people listen to this news anchor.
The film opens with an evocative image of racial tension in South Africa. Two sports fields lie on either side of a road; one is nicely maintained and is where the white rugby team plays, while the other is muddy and poorly maintained, used by a black soccer team. When the famous activist Nelson Mandela drives by in a car, the black soccer players run to their barbed wire fence and begin chanting his name, while the white rugby players simply stare at them. The image is striking in that we see two groups of sports-loving young people, separated only by a road, but they are from extraordinarily different political and socioeconomic worlds.
Indeed, the white rugby team is actively antagonistic towards the black activist, Mandela. When one of the players asks the coach who is passing, the coach calls Mandela a "terrorist," and suggests that the day marks the day that their country goes "to the dogs." This shows the racial tension that exists in the country, the fact that white South Africans see an anti-apartheid activist like Mandela as a threat and someone who will ruin the country, which they believe belongs to them. Thus we see that a major conflict of the film is the systemic racism and post-colonial attitudes in South Africa.
Just four years after getting released from prison, with the enfranchisement of black South Africans, Mandela is elected the first black president of the country, an exciting but daunting development in South African history. It marks an empowering moment for black individuals in the horribly racially divided country, but, as a newscaster states, Mandela is "balancing black aspirations with white fears." Mandela must unite a divided country while also facing personally the distracting and spirit-crushing racism from the white citizens he governs.
Mandela begins to unite his divided nation first within his own sphere of influence: the presidential office. While many of his white employees who are holdovers from the previous administration assume that he is going to fire them, he insists that he will not be firing anyone from the previous administration, but asks that anyone who stays on be willing to unite in their effort to help keep the country running. He also sends the previous president's white bodyguards to work alongside his head of security, Jason Tshabalala, which alarms Jason. When Jason confronts the president about this racial integration, Mandela simply insists, "The rainbow nation starts here," using a phrase coined by theologian Desmond Tutu, suggesting that racial unity and diversity are not only possible in South Africa, but essential to its health as a nation.
The divide within South Africa and its failure to integrate with the rest of the world becomes represented within the narrative of the film by the failing Springboks rugby team, and its divided fandom. The team, headed by Francois Pienaar, is on the brink of being disbanded altogether, due to the fact that they are not playing at a competitive level. Mandela, when he visits a game, also notes that the fan base of the team is divided along racial lines; while white South Africans root for the Springboks team, black South Africans root for the opposing team always—whoever is not their oppressor.