Springbok rugby will finally get its first black captain today as Siya Kolisi leads the South African national team against England, bringing to an end 127 years of 60 white captains in a momentous day for the country as a whole.
The importance of Kolisi’s appointment by forward-thinking coach Rassie Erasmus lies in the reputation of the game – if ever there was a sport that was considered the flagbearer for apartheid principles, it was rugby.
Kolisi has now become an icon, even being compared to Nelson Mandela, who so famously – and pivotally for reconciliation in a newly democratic state – wore the same number six jersey at Ellis Park for the 1995 World Cup final. But the 26-year-old is not the type of person to get carried away by all the hype of the occasion.
“No, I’m actually really relaxed and the coach has made things very simple for me. The only thing he wants from me is to go out and perform on the field. I don’t want to take everything on myself, the strength of my leadership is how I perform on the field. It doesn’t feel any different.
“Obviously I have an idea of how big it is, but my focus is on the main job, which is beating England. I think tomorrow will be the first time it all comes together and I will fully realise how important it is, and after the three-Test series, maybe then I will sit down and have a moment to think about it all,” Kolisi said yesterday, on the eve of making history.
In many ways, Kolisi symbolises the huge challenges facing black players if they want to make it in the sport that was previously guarded with great zeal as the preserve of the white man, especially the Afrikaner. That he has made it to the pinnacle of the game speaks volumes for his sheer determination and resolve, and the warmth and decency he exudes that has seen his appointment hailed by all South African rugby fans save for the lunatic fringe.
Married to a white woman, Rachel, with two children of his own (he also subsequently adopted two of his siblings), even Kolisi’s date of birth is highly significant in the context of South African race relations with June 16 being the date of the youth uprisings in 1976. He was born to two school-going parents, Phakama and Fezakele, in Zwide, a township of Port Elizabeth. Raised by his grandmother, food and money for school fees were a constant struggle.
But his father, like many black men in the Eastern Cape, loved rugby and was a centre for the famous African Bombers club, instilling a love for the game in his son. Even the moment Kolisi’s talent was first appreciated was borne out of hardship – his primary school team were thrashed 50-0 by Emsengeni Primary School, coached by renowned Eastern Cape rugby figure Eric Songwiqi, who “spotted something” and recruited the skilful youngster for his own team.
From there he was invited to provincial trials and made the Eastern Province U12 B side, displaying sensational form in their interprovincial tournament in Mossel Bay and attracting the attention of the highly-regarded Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, which offered him a full bursary.
He soon became a schoolboy rugby sensation, making the SA Schools team in 2008/9 and then being invited to the Western Province academy, the union with which he has played all his professional rugby.
Showing the same equanimity and strength of character that marks him as a man, Kolisi overcame the challenges of an all-boys boarding school which can be tough enough for many, never mind those who can barely speak English and for whom even grass was a luxury.
Kolisi has expressed a desire to be considered as a role model for all South Africans, not just black Africans, and the complexities of transformation are such that he might not even be the right flag-bearer for the success of that imperative, having had the privilege of a private school education.
The good fortune is not lost on the Western Province captain. “When I moved from the township to Grey High School on a scholarship, my dreams suddenly became so much bigger.
“But I want to change that, I want us to be able to keep everyone in the township and make sure they can still compete. It would be awesome if we didn’t need to take them out of the township, because those kids now have to look up to people they can’t relate to.
“Only once I went to Grey did I have everything I needed, but if kids in townships could have all those resources and facilities, that is transformation for me,” Kolisi said.