Maverick Life


Siya Kolisi on rising to the challenge and educating men on how to break the cycle of violence against women

Springbok rugby captain Siya Kolisi shares his story in an intimate memoir, charting his journey from the impoverished township of Zwide to his 2018 appointment as captain and leading South Africa to an astonishing victory at the 2019 World Cup. ‘Rise’ is an exploration of Kolisi’s race and his faith, and the title is inspired by his mother, Phakama, which translates to the book’s name, as well as a celebration of his Xhosa heritage. It is published by HarperCollins and distributed in South Africa by NB Publishers.

Sexual abuse starts early and is a series of points on a scale rather than just one thing. At one end is women being demeaned, called names, objectified as sex objects; next comes sexual harassment and pestering; then sexual assault; then rape; then murder. Not every man goes all the way to the end of that chain, obviously, but no man who’s killed a woman has started right at the deep end either. And with each step a man takes, the sense of entitlement towards taking the next step grows. The attack on women starts long before physical violence; it’s in our conversations with our fellow men, how we treat women in our own lives, and how we treat and perceive women we don’t know. And because so many men feel this and do this, it is socially acceptable, so other men don’t call them out on it; indeed, they often positively encourage it.

It’s men doing these things, but so far men have not faced the consequences, not really. People always ask, “Why don’t women leave abusive relationships?” but they never ask, “Why don’t men stop beating women up?” We talk about how many women were raped last year, but not how many men raped women. These aren’t things which just happen and are done to women by some impersonal force. These are things which men do, and the way we talk about this issue needs to reflect that.

Only women have had to adjust their behaviour. Almost every woman has walked with her keys between her fingers, varied her route, made a fake phone call, arranged for a friend to call her at a certain time, doubled back on herself, pretended to dawdle by a shop window to let a man walking behind her pass, kept to well-lit streets at night as far as possible, been nice to a creepy guy in a bar in case he turns nasty, locked her car doors the moment she’s inside the vehicle, asked a cab driver to drop her a little way from her front door, made efforts not to leave her drink unattended, texted friends to say she’s home safely, worried in the small hours when a friend hasn’t texted to say she’s home safely, and so on. Almost every woman has wondered three words which speak a lifetime of fear – am I next?

Fire brigades use the word “flashover” for the moment a fire in the room becomes a room on fire. Only when society reaches this point, and realises that here we have a problem which is burning us all to cinders, will things change. We as men, we need to first of all own up and say we don’t want to be the problem. We want to learn, to listen, to use our voices.

Otherwise it’s a vicious circle; it’s what young men are exposed to, so it’s what they do themselves, and that in turn exposes the next generation to it, and on it goes. We shouldn’t demonise men just because they’re men. In fact, to be feminist, whether as a male or a female, is to advocate against stereotyping based on gender, and part of that is to believe that men shouldn’t be stereotyped as inherently violent. One needs to make a distinction between men and masculinity, with the latter being looked upon as conditioning, some of which – such as aggression – is culturally taught and can consciously be taught differently. To be feminist is to believe in the full humanity of men and dismantle the structures that encourage violence on the basis of gender. Violence is so normalised. I was shown how to put a condom on in sex education, but we never had anyone really teach us about violence against women and girls.

But as a man I’ve realised there’s no way you can call yourself a man if you’re lifting a hand to a woman. There’s no way you can call yourself a man if you’re putting a woman down by your words just to make yourself feel good. But there’s not a lot of men standing up, and there needs to be. Especially us rugby players. We’re seen as macho men, as hardcore men, and when we stand up and say, “This is not right” it has a greater effect than from other men. And it’s also very necessary that rugby players speak out, because let’s be honest here: the male rugby dressing-room culture, along with male sport in general, has much to do to get their house in order when it comes to ingrained attitudes towards women.

Even though I’ve never hit a woman, I have degraded them. I was part of the problem. I used to go to strip clubs, I treated women badly, so in some ways who am I to speak? I feel guilty, but also I know I have to forgive myself. I can’t let that guilt keep me quiet. You can’t undo what was done in the past, but you can be responsible for what you do in the present and future. So now I’m learning new things, and I’m unlearning a lot of the old stuff I had learned in terms of how we treat women and even how we speak to women.

Now I choose to respect, protect, support and hear the women in and outside my environment. I haven’t always got it right and I’ve messed up a lot of times, but I’ve chosen to be better. I try to show respect by doing my share of what has often been seen as women’s work – cooking, cleaning, ironing, tidying. When I hear my friends say they’re babysitting I reply: “No, you’re being a parent.” I put cooking videos on Instagram. It’s not MasterChef. It’s about encouraging other men to be more involved at home, to chip away at those strict gender roles which construct a mindset that leads to violence. Life has changed. We all have a responsibility. We as men, we’re more than just bringing bread home. That’s what the wives do these days too. That’s what women are asking for in our country, just to be equal. So we have to be good men, and we have to have other good men holding us accountable for our actions.

Even on the field, the coach should say, look, this is not who we are. This is not how we treat women. I have to go around my circle of friends and take people on. I’ve got to tell them that they can’t treat women this way because that is not what I’m about. I’ve got to make it clear that I can’t be mates with anyone who treats women that way. It’s easier to tell people you don’t know what you think. It’s a lot harder to take on people you know. It’s always easier to walk on by. It’s much easier not to do things. But even little things make a difference if enough people do them, and the only way they do them is if they see other people doing them.

Without the women in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today. If I don’t stand up and use my voice for women, I’ll not only be letting down the women in South Africa, I’ll be letting down the people who raised me, my grandmother and my aunt and my mother. All the stuff that I’ve seen, I don’t want to let that go to waste, because it still drives me to make sure that another kid doesn’t go through life witnessing their mum or their aunt being abused. I just don’t want people to go through that kind of thing.

If we educate our sons, we won’t have to protect our daughters, we won’t have to teach them how to defend themselves. That’s not what my son is learning, so why should my daughter learn how to protect herself? She should be learning how to play a sport or be a doctor. I’m talking about education at home as well as at school. Nobody told me that it was not right when I was younger. When as a boy I saw the abuse in my community and even in my own home, there was no-one around to say, “This is fundamentally wrong.” I’ve been hard on my son Nicholas about this; almost too hard on him, perhaps, but I want him to realise how important this is. If every man does that to their sons and for their sons, we can feel safer about our daughters as a community.

We need to show our sons two things. First, that women are their equals and need to be respected and protected rather than attacked. Raising boys to be good men comes down to the smallest of things. It’s about being super-mindful and respectful of women and girls in every single way when they interact with them. They’ve got to look at them, they’ve got to listen, they’ve got to speak to them respectfully. Second, we have to show our sons that it’s not unmanly to show their feelings; that fear, disappointment and anxiety are totally normal, and that experiencing them doesn’t make you less of a man. I try to show Nicholas both, not only in the way I treat Rachel around the house but also how I treat myself; letting him know it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to ask questions.

It’s important for men to be vulnerable, to cry, to tell each other they love each other. I didn’t get it when I was young, but I’m making up for lost time. I sat round a fire with my Stormers teammate Chris van Zyl one night. I’d known him for years, but it wasn’t until that night that we’d spoken deeply and properly. Now I know what he stands for and he knows what I stand for. When you get to know someone beyond just being a teammate, you draw closer to them in every way. You know what drives that person, why they do what they do; and “Why?” is always the most important question. In understanding these things, you also hold each other accountable for your actions and theirs.

It has to be men and not just women telling boys these things, and in turn that means that men have got to stick around and be good fathers to their children. Anyone can father a child, but bringing up that child properly is a very different matter. Fathering a child is biology, and too often in our country that comes with abuse too: a man who has sex with a woman because he can rather than because he cares for her and loves her, and when she has a baby he’s not around to support her and help raise the child. Indeed, he’s probably done exactly the same thing with several different women. And so his children grow up without a responsible father figure in their lives, and in turn they see that women are left alone to do the most important job in the world, raising the next generation, and they think it’s okay, and when they grow up they do it too, and on it goes.

I’m proud to be a UN Global Advocate for the Spotlight Initiative aiming to eliminate all violence against women and girls. Women have suffered too much and too long. Let’s be the generation of men to break this attack on women. ML/DM


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  • Sounds like an amazing Christmas gift for my Rugby mad 13 year old son. Siya is a wonderful role model and hearing this from him will be inspiring and eye opening.