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Top Springboks take a stand against gender-based violen...

Sport

RUGBY & ACTIVISM

Top Springboks take a stand against gender-based violence

From left, Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Kolisi and Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira. (Photos: Steve Haag / Gallo Images | Lee Warren / Gallo Images | Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Prominent Springboks including Siya Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi and Beast Mtawarira are pinning their colours to the mast in the fight against gender-based violence.

An edited version of this story was first published on DM168.

Ribbons, flowers and hand-written messages line the streets around the Clareinch Post Office in Cape Town. The messages pay tribute to Uyinene Mrwetyana, the 19-year-old student who was raped and murdered by post office employee Luyanda Botha on 24 August 2019. 

These messages call for action against gender-based violence and lament the war on women in South Africa. They demand that men change their attitude towards women in communities around the country.

Some men are using their influence to amplify the call for change. While most remain wary of breaking ranks and “mixing sport and politics”, prominent Springboks including Siya Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi and Beast Mtawarira are pinning their colours to the mast.

“Women shouldn’t have to face this alone,” Mtawarira told Daily Maverick. “As men in this country, we need to join the stand against gender-based violence. As professional sportsmen, we need to use our voices and platforms to make a difference. We all know that this is going to be a long, hard fight.”

Mtawarira recently joined forces with Mapimpi, the spearhead of the #Mapimpi67 campaign against gender-based violence. Last November, Mapimpi became the first South African to score a try in a World Cup final.

Like Mtawarira and Kolisi, he’s determined to build on his success with the Springboks and to shine a light on the issues plaguing the country.

“We know that young people, and especially young men, look up to us as Springboks,” Mapimpi told Daily Maverick. “We’ve received a lot of attention since South Africa won the World Cup. We have a responsibility to set the right example.”

Mapimpi was deeply affected by the death of Mrwetyana last year. Growing up in Tsholomnqa in the Eastern Cape, he often witnessed the abuse of female relatives and neighbours. At the time, he felt powerless to stop it.

Remembering Nene

Last year, in the moments leading up to the Springboks’ World Cup warm-up game against Japan, Mapimpi printed “NENE RIP” on his wrist-strapping in bold black ink. The message served as a tribute to Uyinene “Nene” Mrwetyana as well as a call to action against gender-based violence in South Africa.

Would people see it, though? Would they get the message? Mapimpi set out to grab the attention of the camera – and ultimately the attention of millions watching the broadcast around the world. He knew that he had to score a try. In the end, he scored three.

“There was a lot of talk about that incident at the time,” he remembers. “When I heard about it, it went straight to my heart. I understood what that family was going through. I also understood that it was happening all over South Africa.

“I eventually started to think, how can I make people sit up and take notice about what’s happening in South Africa? It’s easy to make a statement on social media. I wanted people all over the world to receive the message.

“The only way that was going to happen was if I scored a try and showed my wrist to the camera. So I said to myself, look, you need to work harder than you ever have before to get into that position.”

Mapimpi’s work, as he readily admits, is far from done. He often shares the story about his upbringing, as he believes it’s the story of many others around South Africa.

“I lived with my gran, sister and cousin. After my brother died, I was the man of the house. Nobody told me how to behave in terms of right and wrong. I didn’t have any good male role models in my life.

“My neighbour helped me a lot while I was growing up. I used to go next door when I was struggling and when I needed food. Later, once my career took off and I started travelling for rugby, I found out that she had been raped while I was away. The guy who raped her was the same age as me.

“That’s the kind of thing I grew up with. You would see men treating women that way, abusing them. Some of the boys would pick up on it, and then grow up to do the same.”

Siya Kolisi and his wife, Rachel, launched the Kolisi Foundation this year. The foundation has assisted a number of people who have been adversely affected during the Covid-19 crisis, particularly in rural communities.

Earlier this year, the Kolisis joined the march against gender-based violence. They subsequently started the “Grace for Grace” project, and have since helped a number of rape and abuse survivors.

Rachel believes that the government could do more to support this cause and that organisations such as the Kolisi Foundation would make a bigger impact if they had more funding.

“We’ve encouraged people to reach out if they need help,” says Rachel. “A while back, I got a message from a woman who had just been raped. There were no shelters in Cape Town that had space for her because of the Covid situation. I read that message with a heavy heart.

“The president addressed the nation on TV the same evening [17 June]. He said that men have declared war on our women and that there is another epidemic beyond the coronavirus. But that’s all he said. I was so upset. It goes well beyond that.”

Siya grew up in Zwide outside Port Elizabeth. Like Mapimpi, he knows why gender-based violence may go unreported and why many people feel powerless to respond. Now that he has a platform, the World Cup-winning captain is determined to make a change.

“I’ve always been a quiet guy,” Siya says. “I’ve got to a place now, however, where I believe you have to stand up and say something. It’s not up to women to take up this fight alone.

“Men are causing this problem so men should be talking about it. We should be calling each other out. There are a lot of things that we need to unlearn in terms of how we treat women and even how we speak to women. I’m talking about education at home as well as at school. Even on the sports field, the coach should say, look, this is not who we are. This is not how we treat women. It has to start with this generation.”

A walk past the Clareinch Post Office and through a diverse neighbourhood prompts more uncomfortable questions. Are the young women who attend the high school across the road safe? What about the young girls riding the roundabout at the park around the corner?

Siya, who was raised by his grandmother, says that he lacked a strong male role model in his life when he was a boy.

“When I saw the abuse, in my community and even in my own home, there was no one to say, ‘This is fundamentally wrong’. We need to be marching for this cause. We need to be demanding better education in our communities. Everyone needs to take responsibility.

“I have to go around my circle of friends and take people on. It’s easier to tell people you don’t know what you think. It’s a lot harder to take on people you know, but these are the hard conversations we have to have if we are going to make real changes. I’ve got to make it clear that I can’t be mates with anyone who treats women that way. “

Siya stresses that men across South Africa – whether they live in the more affluent suburbs or the poverty-stricken townships – need to adjust their attitude. He and Rachel have gone out of their way to educate their son, Nicholas, 5.

“They say you should educate your son rather than protect your daughter,” he says. “I’ve almost been too hard on him, but I want him to realise how important this is. If I educate him, I won’t have to protect my daughter. If that’s happening on a bigger scale, we can feel safer about our daughters as a community. If we’re all educated, we’ll all make better choices in life.

“We need to get rid of this mindset that we are just rugby players,” Siya adds. “That’s rubbish. We can be so much more. The celebrities in South Africa can do so much more. We’re all human beings and we need to take better care of each other.”

Mapimpi believes that the fight against gender-based violence must continue beyond Women’s Month. To paraphrase Mtawarira, this war will not be won overnight.

“It’s not like these incidents came to a stop when we won the World Cup,” Mapimpi states bluntly. “They’re happening right now. Perhaps this isn’t easy for some people to talk about, but it’s a conversation we have to have.”

A walk past the Clareinch Post Office and through a diverse neighbourhood prompts more uncomfortable questions. Are the young women who attend the high school across the road safe? What about the young girls riding the roundabout at the park around the corner?

“Our bodies are not public property” reads the hand-written message on a poster outside the post office, followed by a chilling question that’s become the slogan of a movement: “Am I Next?”

“What happened to Nene… that happened in a good area, and so it received a lot of attention,” says Mapimpi. “But what about the cases that go unreported? What about the incidents the media doesn’t see, especially where I’m from in the rural areas?

“It has to stop and I feel like people like myself have to speak out against it. Wherever I go, I share my story. Many people are shocked by the details, but it’s important that they hear them. It’s important that they know exactly what is happening. Because until we do something about it, it’s not going away.” DM

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