Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved right fists at the medal ceremony after the 200m final at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City is one of those sporting moments that was about far more than sport. Smith and Carlos were raising awareness for Black Consciousness.
Nelson Mandela passing the William Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park in 1995 was another image that not only isolated a moment in time, but sealed an emotional state of a nation in a frame.
It was a picture that captured a mood of hope, of reconciliation and of what was possible in a country ravaged by years of segregation and inequality. Of course, 24 years on, South Africa continues to have many challenges and most of the promise symbolised by that picture of Mandela and Pienaar have gone unfulfilled.
But that image is still a beacon of hope, still a small reminder that sport has the power to bring us closer together. It remains a memory to nudge South Africans to forget their differences for a short time and revel in their diversity and their collective love of sport. It’s a prompt that sport binds us more than it divides us.
On Saturday, in the distant prefecture of Yokohama in Japan, the first black Springbok Test captain, Siya Kolisi, could rekindle the spirit of 1995. If he becomes only the eighth man to lift the Webb Ellis Cup it would be an image that could sit comfortably alongside Mandela and Pienaar.
The 28-year-old skipper will lead the Springboks into battle against England in the final of RWC 2019 in Japan. It will also be the occasion of his 50th Test appearance.
“If South Africa go on and win a World Cup this year outside of South Africa, with Siya Kolisi as the captain, it will be absolutely monumental, especially in a World Cup that is going to be so tough to win,” former Bok wing Bryan Habana said at a Laureus Sport for Good function in New York earlier this year.
“For us as a country to have that inspiration, for 70% of our population to have that example, would be immensely important; on a par with Mandela in ’95, if not greater. It would be historic.”
For this group of Boks, Saturday’s final is a culmination of a two-year plan under coach Rassie Erasmus. For all the individuals that make up the team, it’s the pinnacle of years preparing for this moment.
Many have been groomed since childhood to become Springboks. Most come from affluent homes and had opportunities to excel. But some didn’t. The Springbok squad is a microcosm of the widely diverse country we live in, both socially and economically.
Even by South Africa’s harsh standards, Kolisi’s early years were a struggle. Born to a teenage mother in the township of Zwide near Port Elizabeth, he only really knew hardship. His mother, Phakama, could barely fend for herself, let alone a child. She died when he was 15. His grandmother Nolulamile continued to struggle to feed Siya and his much younger siblings.
By the time his mother died, Siya was at the prestigious Grey High School on a scholarship thanks to his sporting prowess. But those formative, bleak years of aching hunger and poverty have never left him. That struggle forged him into the man he is today.
“Times were tough when I was little and often there wasn’t food. I would go to bed starving,” Kolisi told me in one of our many interviews over the years. “Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to pay my primary school fees, which were only R50 a year.
“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. It’s my motivation.
“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.
“And 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 teammates 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.”
Going to Grey was not easy either. Surrounded by affluence and privilege was a constant reminder of his own station in life and his own bleak prospects. Language was another hurdle to overcome.
“There was a language barrier. I struggled with my academic work and I was scared to speak as a result,” Kolisi said.
“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’s son Nicholas is named after Holton.
Kolisi was a toddler when the Boks won the World Cup in 1995, but in 2007, when they won again, beating England 15-6 in Paris, Kolisi watched from a tavern in Zwide because he didn’t have a TV at home.
He was already established as a promising schoolboy player at Grey High while he was also a regular player for the African Bombers club in Zwide. Kolisi was on a rugby scholarship at Grey and one of the conditions was that he couldn’t play rugby for Bombers for fear of injury. But he did anyway.
“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 said. “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.”
It was a sign that he was his own man. Another time a good friend at school asked Kolisi to join the family on an overseas holiday. Coming from his humble background it was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel abroad. Naturally the trip clashed with a local school rugby tour, but Kolisi followed his heart and went overseas. Needless to say it caused some problems at school.
But his rugby thrived thanks to the facilities, coaching and most importantly, nutrition he received at the hostel.
Kolisi landed in some trouble in January 2019 when he was on a public relations trip to Japan as part of the marketing requirements for RWC 2019. In a press conference, he was asked about transformation and why there weren’t more black players in the upper echelons of the game in South Africa.
He tried to explain that the issue was more complex than simple selection and even suggested that Mandela would not have backed a quota system. Kolisi, speaking purely from his own personal experiences, told the media that it was a combination of factors, including the lack of nutrition. Inevitably he was taken to task in social media because some sentences from the entire interview were taken out of context.
“Imagine I didn’t go to an English school,” Kolisi said on that trip. “I wouldn’t have eaten properly. I wouldn’t have grown properly and I wouldn’t have had the preparation the other boys did.
“When I went to the English school (Grey High in Port Elizabeth), I had to compete against boys who had been eating six meals a day, each and every single day of their lives.
“It’s tough. So if you force someone into the Springbok team, and maybe if they’re not good enough and they have one bad game, you probably will never see them again.
“Representing South Africa is tough because people want results and they want transformation,” Kolisi said. “Look, the guys that are playing now… I think the talent is there, 100%.
“I wouldn’t want to be picked (for a team) because of my skin colour because that surely wouldn’t be good for the team, and the guys around you would also know.
“It’s tough for us as players because when you put a certain amount or number on it (transformation), are you actually there because you’re good enough or… even if you are good enough you (a black player) can doubt yourself.”
The storm blew over and Kolisi carried on with the business of playing rugby and making sure he got to RWC 2019 in one piece. In a sport of multiple injuries per match, nothing is a given. But then again, in Kolisi’s life, nothing has been given. He’s had to scrap for every inch of success he’s had.
Being captain of a rugby team was never Siya’s style. He didn’t see himself as a natural leader, but many others did. One of those was former Stormers coach Robbie Fleck, who made Kolisi captain of the club in 2017.
“I’ve become a leader, which is something I have had to learn and grow into,” Kolisi said.
“I suffered an ankle injury when we lost to the Chiefs in the 2016 quarterfinal. After that game, Fleckie (Robbie Fleck) called me in and had some hard words for me.
“He told me I should look around and realise that I was now a senior player in the side. He was blunt. I needed to get my act together. He told me I should be a captain.
“It made me switch my mentality. I realised that I had to stop hiding and acting like a child in the team. I had to man up and show leadership because even though I was 24, I was already quite experienced.”
And that’s exactly what he did. He became a leader. In June 2018, Erasmus made Kolisi Springbok captain for the home series against England. The Boks staged two massive come-from-behind wins to claim the first two Tests and seal the series.
Later that year they beat the All Blacks in Wellington, becoming the first country to beat New Zealand on home soil in nine years (the composite British & Irish Lions won a Test in NZ in 2017).
“As captain, I also have to think about other people’s roles, but even so we have leaders in different areas to help ease the load,” Kolisi said. “As I become more experienced I want to take more control and although we have a shared leadership style, I can still play the overrule card.”
On Saturday in a foreign land that is as far from Zwide as it is possible to be, in more ways than one, Kolisi will lead his team out of the tunnel in the Springbok No 6 jersey.
The same jersey, with the same connotations and weight it represented when both Pienaar and Mandela wore it on the podium on that sunny winter’s day nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago.
It’s a short walk out of the tunnel and into the arena. But for Kolisi and South Africa, it represents a long walk to freedom, acceptance and equality. DM
Wild rats still enjoying running wheels.