In the footsteps of Mandela: Siya Kolisi's remarkable journey to Springboks captaincy

Alex Broun 13:00 14/09/2018
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The famous No6 jersey: Siya Kolisi (l) and Nelson Mandela.

As anyone who was in South Africa during the Springboks‘ magical run to 1995 Rugby World Cup title victory will tell you, it was an event bigger than sport.

Here was a country in the throes of political turmoil, still recovering from the harrowing years of apartheid and sporting isolation, a country divided along racial lines – distrust and tension on either side.

Into this boiling pot was thrust the iconic figure of Nelson Mandela, who became president on May 10, 1994 – just a year and two weeks before the 1995 RWC was set to kick-off.

‘Madiba’, as he was called, realised he needed a symbol to unite his strife-torn nation. A cause for the country to rally behind, something to begin to heal the wounds of his homeland.

He chose the Springboks.

In a move that caused howls of derisions within his own African National Congress (ANC) party, Mandela embraced the previously vilified Springbok emblem.

Nelson Mandela meets the Springboks before the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

He went to visit the team in Silvermine nature reserve, just outside Cape Town, in the days before the Boks’ first match in the RWC against the Wallabies at Newlands.

He expressed to the team, and captain Francois Pienaar, the importance of doing well for the nation.

Mandela’s words worked and South Africa surprised the world champion Wallabies 27-18 to begin a journey that would culminate in a scarcely believable victory in the final over the great Jonah Lomu and the All Blacks – and gave birth to the image on which a new Republic could grow: Mandela handing the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar.

On that day back in 1995 the current Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, just a week after his fourth birthday, was struggling to survive in the harsh Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth.

He has little memory of that historic occasion and could never have imagined that one day he would grow up to wear the famous No.6 jersey that Mandela immortalised that day.

But Kolisi’s inspirational story, and his appointment as South Africa’s first black captain after 126 years, has brought joy and hope back to a nation once again riven by scandal and political upheaval.

Kolisi with his wife Rachel, son Nicholas (on his lap) and half siblings, Liyema (l) and Liphelo.

Kolisi with his wife Rachel, son Nicholas (on his lap) and half siblings, Liyema (l) and Liphelo, on their wedding day in 2016.

Kolisi’s mother, Phakama, was just 16 when Siyamthanda was born, while his father, Fezakele, was in his final year of school.

Tragically Phakama died when Kolisi was just 15 leaving his late grandmother, Nolulamile, to raise him.

“Times were tough when I was little and often there wasn’t food. I would go to bed starving,” Kolisi revealed recently to leading South African journalist Craig Ray in The Guardian.

“Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to pay my primary school fees, which were only R50 (Dh15) a year.”

Rugby, however, was already in his blood.

The black communities of the Eastern Cape, less than 500 kilometres away from where Mandela himself was born in Mvezo, are one of the heartlands of the game in South Africa. Young Siya fell in love with rugby playing with the famous African Bombers club, which toughened him up fast as he was often playing against men ten years his senior.

In a moment that was to change his life Kolisi was spotted at an Under 12 tournament in Zwide and offered a rugby scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School in Port Elizabeth, the alma mater of SA cricket legend Graeme Pollock and England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Mike Catt.

A long way from his Xhosa upbringing, Kolisi initially struggled in the strange new environment.

“There was a language barrier. I struggled with my academic work and I was scared to speak as a result,” he recalls.

“I would say one or two words in English and complete a sentence in Xhosa.

“But the guys were accepting and Nick Holton, who became a good friend, knew some Xhosa. So he helped me speak English and I helped him with his Xhosa.

“I knew him from rugby trials and we have been friends ever since.”

Kolisi in action for Grey College

Kolisi in action for Grey College.

Being on a sports scholarship Kolisi was expected to put Grey rugby above all else, but he could not turn his back on his home rugby club.

Soon the inevitable happened.

“I injured my ankle playing for African Bombers at the end of the school season and it was so swollen that I couldn’t walk,” Kolisi admits.

“To hide it I had to stay in bed on the Monday. I eventually said that I injured it playing soccer in the street. I was out for three months.”

But luckily for young Siya, and South African rugby, Grey persisted with their headstrong charge.

Kolisi’s exceptional skills and bravery saw him graduate to the Eastern Province Kings youth set-up between 2007-09 and in 2010 he made the move to Western Province where he made his senior debut in 2011.

After representing South Africa under 20 in both the 2010 and 2011 Junior World Championships he made his Super Rugby debut for the Stormers in 2012, and the following year made his Springbok bow against Scotland in Nelspruit, coming on as an early replacement but still earning Man of the Match honours as the Boks won 30–17.

Then earlier in 2018, new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus named him the first black Springbok captain.

Kolisi and Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus.

Kolisi and Springbok coach, Rassie Erasmus.

But Kolisi’s remarkable rise from township to Springbok captaincy only tells part of the story.

He has a strong marriage to a white woman, Rachel, and is a loving dad to two mixed race children – Nicholas (named after Holton) and Keziah. He has also legally adopted his two half siblings, Liyema and Liphelo, who he was re-united with after a long absence.

“In 2012 when I was in camp with the Boks, I went to Zwide to look for them because I hadn’t seen them in years,” Kolisi explains.

“I found a cousin who told me where my brother and sister were. They were at school at the time but I came back later and met them. You can imagine how emotional it was.

“My little sister didn’t know me. She had been crawling when I last saw her. I told the woman taking care of them that I was going to take them for December holidays that year, which I did.

“But afterwards I said I can’t send them back.

“I had to go through a legal process, which I started after that holiday. It took about 18 months, but I finally legally adopted them.”

In many ways Kolisi embodies all that the rainbow nation represents.

Kolisi (r) with good friend Eben Etzebeth (second from r) and then Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho in 2015

Kolisi (r) with good friend Eben Etzebeth (second from r) and then Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho in 2015

“I don’t shy away from where I have come from and I’m aware that my story is a typical South African story in some ways,” he says.

But far from seeing this as a burden he embraces it as his “motivation.”

“Yes, being a professional sportsman can be tough and occasionally you question if it’s all worth it,” he continues.

“But then I just think about where I’ve come from and about the people that look up to me. For me to be able to help people inspired by me, I have to play every week. That is my duty.

“I’m not only trying to inspire black kids but people from all races. When I’m on the field and I look into the crowd, I see people of all races and social classes.

“We as players represent the whole country.

“I tell my team-mates that you should never play just to represent one group.

“You can’t play to be the best black player or to be the best white player to appeal to a community; you have to play to be the best for every South African.

“We represent something much bigger than we can imagine.”

Just like the great Nelson Mandela.

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