Siya Kolisi - South Africa’s 1st Black Rugby Captain

Jake Cooper | 23 Aug 2018

A star player scoresSouth Africa is a country with a long, interesting history, and there are many milestones that mark the steps to its current democracy. It was only in the early 1990’s that the country had its first democratic election, which makes it perceivable that it’s still going through many changes.

Most recently, the country saw the national rugby team, the Springboks; elect the first official black captain. Siya Kolisi, a star player that rose from poverty-stricken conditions to defy all expectations and represent his country on the field is now at the helm of one of the most well known teams in the world.

His story and new position as team captain has not been without controversy, but general consensus is that Kolisi will be a long-remembered inspiration, not only for South Africa, but also for the entire world.

A Rugby Fan From A Young Age

On the field, Kolisi is a force to be reckoned with. His performance is second to none, and there is no question that he is one of the finest players in the world. So much so, that putting money on him as man of the match would usually be a smart move.

But in a recent interview, Kolisi spoke more about his life and growing up in less than perfect conditions. In the interview he spoke of his childhood in the Zwide Township near Port Elizabeth, and how he was the eldest of three children, born to a teenage mother that was too young to properly care for him. It was his grandmother who provided for the family, taking work where she could find it as a domestic servant.

On the subject of loving the game of rugby, Kolisi explained that it was his father, Fezakele, who taught him the rules of the game at a very young age. Fezakele himself played for the local team, and was keen to share his love of the sport with his son. Still, Kolisi explained, he never dreamed he would one day be captain of the national team. Those in townships simply don’t dream that way, he explained sombrely.

The Spark

Kolisi says that he vividly remembers the moment he first felt a real, driving passion to be a master of the sport, and rise up beyond his circumstances. Playing rugby in school, his team had lost 50-0, but the captain of the opposing team, veteran coach Eric Songwiqi, sought him out after the game and offered some words of encouragement. Songwiqi told Kolisi that he had a fire, and a real talent, and Kolisi says the words stuck with him, driving him on to greater things. Soon after, he landed a scholarship and moved on to Grey High School, where his dream would manifest into reality.

In 2011 Kolisi made his debut for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup and 2012 he went on to play for the Cape Town based Stormers. He was then selected to play for the national team, and on the 28 May 2018 he made history by being selected as the first ever black captain in the squad’s 126-year history. He has the ability to play in any position in the back row, and to date, has played in 29 Tests.

The Controversy

The story of Kolisi is certainly an inspiring one, but it has not been without its controversies. Racial tensions in South Africa have remained high, despite the country having been democratic and multi-cultural since 1994. Kolisi has had to endure racial slurs and abrasive treatment from some teammates, but is likewise quick to point out that he never let it get him down, or sway him from his journey. His marriage to a white woman, Rachel Smith, also raised eyebrows and subjected the couple to a barrage of racial abuse.

Rugby in South Africa has historically been a sport played by white sportsmen, although an increase in black players has been seen in all of the national teams. But this in itself has not gone uncriticised, given that quotas were imposed in 2013, requiring that players of specific skin colour be signed up in order for a team to be official. Some argue that this undermines the true value of being chosen for a national team, and is a flawed requirement.

Few argue, however, that Kolisi deserves his appointment as captain given his incredible performance and leadership skills.

Living The Dream

With Kolisi having played his first game as captain against England at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, he’s already a hero in many people’s eyes. Many have compared his election as captain to that of South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995, and maintain that he is doing as much for the sport as Nelson Mandela’s legacy has.

The story of Siya Kolisi is one that will no doubt inspire children back in Zwide Township, and perhaps giving them reason to have bold dreams of their own. Likewise, he will stand as proof to the sporting world that no aspirations are too big, or too far fetched, as long as you are brave enough to chase them.

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