Invictus opens with the release of Nelson Mandela (Freeman) from prison in 1990. After being held for nearly 26 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, Mandela's release also marks what soon becomes the end of apartheid in South Africa. A new election for President of South Africa is held, in which Mandela handily wins. For his oath, he gives a speech pledging to unite the people of South Africa. The current divide has mostly separated the Afrikaners (white South Africans that came from Europe during the 17th century) and the black natives. The resulting effects from Mandela's victory give rise to jubilation for the black population of South Africa, while the white Afrikaners feel shame and begin to feel that they're losing the country. This is punctuated by a squadron of cars carrying Mandela down a road, poor black kids playing soccer on one side, white Afrikaners playing Rugby on the other. The coach of the Rugby team tells his men to remember this day, as it marks 'the day the country went to the dogs'.
Mandela's head of security (Julian Lewis Jones) soon makes a request from Mandela concerning the team. He asks for more men to keep a secure lookout for the president. The current team is made up of four black South African's. Mandela's response is to hire four white Afrikaners. Upon first meeting, they immediately clash due to racial hang-ups but are forced to work out their differences, as Mandela is interested in leading by example in terms of racial equality.
In his first days in office the tension is palpable as most of the former president's underlings (who are mostly Afrikaners) still hold their jobs. Worried that Mandela will fire them soon they begin packing boxes, awaiting the inevitable. Mandela, upon seeing this, holds a conference in which he says that he won't fire anyone who used to work for the old regime and that they need to work together to promote racial equality throughout South Africa. The speech goes over well without any dissenters.
Mandela soon begins taking early morning walks before the sun rises. Two security team members accompany him. While walking through the streets, a blue van, making wild turns while speeding soon comes upon Mandela. While the security team fears an attack, it is merely a man delivering newspapers.
We are soon introduced to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), current captain of the South African Springboks rugby team. The team is made up mostly up of white Afrikaners save for one black S.A. member named Chester, who misses upcoming games due to a hamstring injury. For many black South Africans, the Springbok name, logo and colors all represent the dark history and racial injustice of apartheid in S.A. and thus refuse to support them, rooting for England instead when they play the Springboks. With less than a year away to the World Cup in 1995 (of which South Africa is hosting), the Springboks lose more games than win, and are highly anticipated to lose early in the tournament to Australia.
Mandela, having read an article in which the coach of the Springboks is replaced (with captain Francois still remaining), begins to think in terms of how he's going to unite South Africa and put away their differences. He sees Rugby as the vehicle for such a problem. Since most Afrikaners are under the impression of losing their country's identity, Mandela aims to unite them with keeping the Springbok name and using the upcoming world cup as an example of how to overcome South Africa's apartheid past. Soon, a vote by the sports committee in South Africa unanimously agrees to change the Spingbok name, logo and colors, all former symbols of Afrikaner pride. Upon hearing this, Mandela personally travels to the committee to change their mind, saying that by keeping their former colors/name, they can reach out to Afrikaners that mostly think Mandela is out to rid South Africa of their presence. This doesn't go well with the natives and by the time Mandela leaves, he has acquired only 13 votes. Still, he sees this as progress. His assistant, Mary (Leleti Khumalo), does not, and wishes Mandela would concern himself with more important matters than rugby, a sentiment shared by others at the office. Nonetheless, Mandela forges ahead with his own plans.
Mandela invites Francois to tea one afternoon. One of the Afrikaners on the security team asks Francois how the Springboks will fare this year. Despite Francois promising to do their best, the Afrikaner decides that they have absolutely no chance. Inside his office, Mandela talks about inspiration and how to motivate under extreme pressure. Mandela mentions a poem that kept his spirits up while he was imprisoned and Francois says he understands, mentioning of a particular song the team sings before every match. While not directly asking Francois, he implies that a win for their team in the world cup could have huge ramifications for South Africa by uniting Afrikaners and the natives.
Francois, in an attempt to convey Mandela's message, gives his team copies of the South African national anthem, telling them that they shouldn't mumble through the words like they used to. Most of the team crumples up their copies, saying they have no interest. Francois recants and says it is optional. They are forced, however, from Mandela, to take occasional breaks from Rugby to go out into the poorer areas of S.A. and teach rugby to the natives. At first, Chester (the teams only black player) is swarmed by all the kids but soon the entire team is out there helping a new generation of children to learn rugby and instill national pride, regardless of race. Francois implores his team that forms change all the time and their team is no different.
Mandela is found outside his home, unconscious. His doctor claims bed rest is needed to sustain his energy but despite this Mary keeps his schedule open so that he can follow rugby. The tournament is soon underway and the Springboks surprise everyone by besting Australia. They continue to take morning runs and as they win more games, their support by both white and black Africans continue to rise. The Springboks continue to advance without much trouble. After one of their matches Francois proclaims that they need a break and thus head to Robben Island, where Mandela was held. Francois, standing inside Mandela's actual jail cell, is dismayed to find how small it is (barely covering his wingspan), with a sheet on the ground to sleep on. Through voice over, the poem Mandela mentioned to Francois earlier is recited while the team looks over the spot where prisoners broke rocks as part of their labor service while imprisoned.
The final day before the match finds the Springboks taking another early morning run. This time they are joined by both white and black South African's cheering them on to victory. Before the match the security team is nervous for Mandela, as it will be the most exposed he's ever been since taking office. Extra sharpshooters take guard on adjacent roofs while the rest of security take posts inside the stadium. A plane, whose captain announces full responsibility for his actions (thus leading people to believe he might commit a terrorist attack), flies very low over the stadium, the words 'Go Springboks' painted underneath. The crowd erupts in cheers.
The final match is between the undefeated New Zealand team and the Springboks. Nearly 62,000 fans have turned up at the stadium to watch. Chester's hamstring injury has finally healed and he's been cleared for the game. NZ has mostly shut out other teams in the tournament thus far, the closest victory still being won by 20 points. Though the odds don't favor S.A., they resolve to do their best. The game stays tied throughout and goes back and forth, South Africa mostly playing catch-up whenever N.Z. kicks a goal for three points. In the end, S.A. is able to edge out New Zealand by three points as the clock runs out. South Africa wins 15-12.
After the trophy presentation the streets of South Africa are booming with excitement. Both white and black South Africans are cheering for the Springboks in celebration. Mandela's security team is seen trying to make its way through the crowd with little luck. Mandela says that there is no need for them to rush. Their national pride, at least for the moment, seems to have been somewhat restored in the eyes of themselves, much less the rest of the world.
The film ends with the final recitation of the poem, Invictus (which is Latin, meaning 'unconquered').
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.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
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.