; LONG READ: The incredible journey of Siya Kolisi – The Citizen

LONG READ: The incredible journey of Siya Kolisi

Siya Kolisi. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Siya Kolisi. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

The Springboks’ newest captain was dealt a pretty rough hand in life, but he overcame immense odds. This is his story.

On Sunday evening, Siya Kolisi called his wife Rachel.

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus had, in front of the squad of 43 players, confirmed him as the captain for the Test series against England – the first black man to be bestowed the honour.

Rachel abruptly put the phone down in her husband’s ear.

She called back.

“Repeat what you’ve just told me,” she instructed him sternly.

Kolisi dutifully spun the story to her again.

“Stoked” – as Kolisi described her mood at that moment – she gave him another instruction.

“Call your dad immediately!”

“No, I can’t. It hasn’t been officially announced yet. I’m only telling you,” Kolisi replied.

Typical of the man, Kolisi was observing team protocol like the team man he’s become famous for but he actually also needed to first process the whole thing himself.

Moments before, he had been in a haze, struggling to grasp what Erasmus had just told him.

“I don’t remember how the moment Rassie broke the news felt,” admitted Kolisi.

“It was in front of the whole team. I was shocked and overwhelmed. All my teammates came over to shake my hand but I wasn’t even looking at them. It was an unreal moment.”

The man Kolisi takes over from, injured lock Eben Etzebeth, chatted to him afterwards.

“He asked me how I was feeling. I told him I couldn’t answer him. He reassured me that he knew exactly what I was talking about,” said Kolisi.

Etzebeth will indeed know – he was the man last year that had to fill the shoes of Warren Whiteley.

Even when Kolisi fronted up to the media for this first time since his appointment on Wednesday, he stated pertinently that the news still hadn’t sunk in.

It’s indeed huge.

Siya Kolisi, Springbok Test captain.

*****

Siyamthanda Kolisi’s childhood reflects the struggles of millions of black South Africans.

He’s not too keen really to go into the details as “people know my background” yet it’s still unlikely that the majority of people truly realise what odds he’s overcome.

Appropriately born on Youth Day (16 June) 1991, Kolisi essentially didn’t grow up with parents.

His mother, Phakama, was only 16 at the time and his father, Fezakele, was writing matric and shortly afterwards packed his bags for Cape Town.

“They simply weren’t able to raise me.”

Kolisi went to stay with his grandmother, aunt and uncle on his father’s side in the sprawling township of Zwide near Port Elizabeth.

Cramped for space, little Siya had to use couch pillows to make himself a bed on the living room floor.

Going hungry was hardly a weird feeling.

His grandmother would clean kitchens just to scrape together enough money for the odd meal.

When she was invited for tea by friends, she would sneak a vetkoek just to make sure her little boy would fill a small space in his tummy.

At times there wasn’t even R50 to pay for Kolisi’s township school.

He would eventually start skipping class to take care of his ailing grandmother, clearly fearing the worst.

One afternoon, she collapsed in the kitchen and died in Kolisi’s arms.

Despite the trauma, he still insists that it was a blessing in disguise: at least she didn’t die alone.

Life really was hard.

Not that he’d admit to it fully.

“Growing up was difficult but it wasn’t the worst,” he said.

*****

The young and clearly overawed Fezakele Kolisi didn’t give his son much for the majority of his childhood.

But Siya inherited one crucial thing: his father’s love for the game.

Fezakele was a centre for Home Defenders rugby club, which is now known as Zwide United.

Already firmly infatuated with the oval ball after he was introduced to rugby at age eight, Kolisi played a match for Emsengeni Primary against a highly-fancied Grey Junior.

“We lost by something like 50-0,” he remembered.

The result didn’t matter though.

Kolisi had caught the eye of Eric Songwiqi, a stalwart in coaching circles in Eastern Province rugby and then coach at Grey.

“It was one of the biggest moments of my life,” he said.

“Eric came to me afterwards and told me he saw something in me. He told me to come to his school and I left [Emsengeni] in the middle of the school year.”

Shortly afterwards, Kolisi was thrust into his first provincial trials and still had to contend with the lack of basic resources he was so used to already.

“I’ll never forget my trial match. I was playing in boxers because I didn’t have proper rugby shorts.”

He nonetheless ended up being picked for Eastern Province’s Under-12 B side for a provincial tournament in Mossel Bay.

His general play had been compelling enough for Andrew Hayidakis to offer him a full bursary to attend Grey High in PE.

“Coming from the township, I was in amazement about the offer. When I started at Grey High, my dreams suddenly became far bigger,” said Kolisi.

“You have basically everything you need to become whatever you want. I started dreaming big. You don’t have those dreams when you’re in the township.”

*****

Kolisi did well at school, even though he initially couldn’t speak a word of English.

Thankfully, a boy in his hostel, Nick Holton, took him under his wings and started giving him a few language and homework lessons.

Kolisi soared, playing Craven Week for Eastern Province and being selected for South African Schools.

He was hitting the big time, but never lost perspective because he continued to go back to Zwide on weekends, where his cushion bed on the floor paradoxically encouraged comfort and familiarity.

One particular weekend stood out.

Coming home, Kolisi learned that Phakama had had two more children.

Big bro Siya had a half-brother and a sister yet, frustratingly, only saw them in passing.

When Phakama died when he was 15, the two children moved to stay with their father before he also passed away and social services came swooping in.

The system is often brutal as much as it is impersonal and Kolisi was left with virtually no trace for tracking them down.

But there wasn’t much time for fretting.

Kolisi had been convinced to join the Western Province Academy in Stellenbosch as an 18-year-old and was packing his bags.

None of Kolisi’s mentors over his formative years – Songwiqi, Hayidakis and school coach Dean Carelse – had doubts about his grounding, but the trek to the Western Cape still had its risks.

One man who was aware of those was Mzwandile Stick, the Springboks’ assistant coach.

Stick had been a stalwart for the Blitzboks at the time and noticed the still-teenaged Kolisi arriving at the academy’s base.

“I was frank,” said Stick.

“I told Siya that he’s only in Stellenbosch for rugby. There are a lot of stuff that goes on in a student area like that. If he was out in the streets too much, he might’ve lost what he had. But he’s always had a proper head on his shoulders.”

Kolisi took that advice to heart and made rapid strides, culminating in a Super Rugby debut at 20 for the Stormers and a Springbok debut at 21.

Fences had been mended with father Fezakele, who was in Mbombela to witness his son’s first taste of the green-and-gold jersey.

However, one thing continued to gnaw at him: where were those two siblings?

Off-seasons would become hunts to track them down, but there would be no luck.

Kolisi was 23 and in PE again – this time during the rugby season – to have one more crack.

He drove around aimlessly before a distant cousin saw him.

“You’ve seen your brother and sister, right?” the cousin asked.

Kolisi couldn’t believe it.

He was convinced the two kids – Liyema and Liphelo – deserved better in life and took South Africa’s infamous bureaucracy head-on in securing legal guardianship.

*****

It’s May 2018, and Siya Kolisi has his hands full.

His family of four now includes two of his own children with Rachel, and the Stormers are slumping badly in their Super Rugby campaign.

As a result, Kolisi’s own form has suffered and, predictably, critics wonder how he can be national captain if he can’t justify a spot in the side given his performances.

“It’s been tough, especially when you compare my season to 2017. Last year, you saw me more as a player. I was carrying the ball and given more game-breaking opportunities,” he said.

“It’s been different this season. We’ve been struggling as a team [the Stormers], and I’ve had to focus on things I don’t normally do.

“But the Boks looked at different departments of my game. I’ve worked on other things, and I’m doing better. I know now [after my appointment] that I need to perform. That’s what’s expected of me. It’s going to be a challenge.

“I love challenges.”

That’s an understatement.

 

 

 

 

 

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