Documentary on Makazole Mapimpi highlights tough start but his story is far from over
The Springbok player who hails from ‘the most hopeless situation’ continues to bring hope to millions around the country. At the ripe old rugby age of 31, Makazole Mapimpi believes his best is yet to come.
A documentary that explores Makazole Mapimpi’s tough start to life and rugby in the Eastern Cape will be aired for the first time on 27 March. Map1mp1 charts the incredible journey of the World Cup-winning Springbok wing and shines the spotlight on a region that is rich in talent yet poor in structures and resources.
Bok captain Siya Kolisi grew up in the Zwide township outside Gqeberha and endured many challenges before winning a professional contract with Western Province straight out of school. He earned his first cap for the Stormers at 20 and made his Test debut for the Springboks a year later.
Kolisi went on to captain both teams. In 2019, he became the first black African to lead South Africa to a World Cup title. In 2021, he guided the Boks to a series victory against the British & Irish Lions and helped the side retain their place at the top of the World Rugby rankings.
There are similarities between Kolisi and Mapimpi’s stories, but there are also significant differences. When Mapimpi scored against England in the 2019 World Cup final, the late isiXhosa commentator Kaunda Ntunja summed up the achievement by stating that Mapimpi was a player who had “come from the most hopeless situation in the history of Springbok rugby”.
Mapimpi grew up in Tsholomnqa, a rural village outside East London. His mother, brother and sister all passed away, and he was left to fend for himself.
From a young age, he witnessed horrors – such as gender-based violence – that he would never forget. Although he had talent and was encouraged by teammates and coaches to push for higher honours, he couldn’t envisage a career at the top.
But his story didn’t end there. Mapimpi made an impact for Border in the Currie Cup First Division. He was later drafted into the Southern Kings side for a Super Rugby tournament that enjoyed global exposure.
From there, he was contracted by the Cheetahs, and finally by the Sharks – one of South Africa’s biggest franchises. In 2018, the 27-year-old was called up to the Springbok squad, even though his understanding of defensive systems and kicking strategy was limited.
Mzwandile Stick puts the Mapimpi story into perspective. Like Kolisi, Stick was raised in a township outside Gqeberha. He led the Springbok Sevens side to their inaugural World Sevens Series title in 2009.
Later, his excellent understanding of the game earned him an assistant coaching post with the Springboks.
Stick knows about struggle and what it takes to defeat the odds. And yet, he is at pains to point out that Mapimpi has faced more adversity than most.
“When you look at where he comes from, and what he had to endure when he was younger, you can understand why he is as tough as he is,” Stick tells DM168. “You’d have to be tough to come through all that. I’ve had the chance to visit that area, and it put things into perspective like never before.”
Stick notes that Mapimpi was already one of the best finishers in the country when he joined the Boks in early 2018. The player was underdeveloped in other areas of the game, though, and had to be brought up to speed.
“What you have to understand about Mapimpi, and indeed a lot of players who come from the Eastern Cape, is that they grow up in leagues that advocate running rugby above everything else,” Stick said.
“There are coaches in the Eastern Cape who will take a player off the field if he kicks too much. So, the upshot is there is not much kicking, and there’s a chance that a player might go through the system without having to catch many high balls.
“Mapimpi hadn’t had much exposure to that side of the game and we had to work with him to develop those skills. Jacques Nienaber helped him with his defence, and I helped him with the aerial skills. He never looked back.
“[Then coach] Rassie Erasmus was so impressed with his progress that he retained him for the Rugby Championship. By the end of the season, we were in agreement that he was one of the most improved players due to his progress in those departments.
“He was always a deadly finisher, though, and he managed to perform that role consistently well.”
Something greater than himself
When I interviewed Mapimpi shortly after his Test debut in 2018, he spoke about using this opportunity to inspire the next generation, especially those who hail from the rural Eastern Cape who may struggle to believe that a career in rugby is possible.
As he relayed the message, he gave the impression that he had already exceeded his own expectations.
And yet, so much has changed since 2019, with the Boks winning the World Cup in Japan and the Lions series two years later.
For all the hype around teams such as New Zealand and France, the Springboks are still ranked No 1 in the world – and Mapimpi is still one of the deadliest finishers in the game.
A World Cup winner’s medal is a ticket to sporting immortality. You would’ve forgiven a player with Mapimpi’s history for taking his foot off the pedal in later years, and for enjoying the life he was denied as a young man. But it’s not in his nature to slow down or to think about his own wants and needs. Indeed, Mapimpi hopes that this new documentary inspires others in similar situations, and that his future performances remind all and sundry that nothing is impossible.
“This documentary is a story about the Eastern Cape and the challenges everybody faces in that region,” Mapimpi tells DM168.
“It’s a story about my background, in the sense that I grew up in that environment. We didn’t even have rugby balls. We had to use a packet as a ball.
“Things have changed since then,” he adds in his typically understated manner. “I’m not a guy who holds on to past achievements, but it’s nice to be reminded every now and then. It’s great to see that what you’re doing is making a difference in people’s lives.
“You have guys stopping you in the street, and telling everyone around them, ‘This is Makazole Mapimpi! This is the guy who won a World Cup and beat the Lions with the Springboks!’ When that happens, it reminds me about the role I must play.
“I’ve always said that I’m doing this for people other than myself. I’m still trying to show people who come from a similar background – from the poor rural areas of the Eastern Cape – that anything is possible. It doesn’t matter which school you go to … if you have the talent and the ability to work towards your dream, you can make it.
“When I was younger, I had some people who believed in me, who said I could be a Springbok. At the time, I didn’t believe them, because I didn’t think it was possible. It goes to show you what can happen.”
Best strike rate in history
Stick highlights Mapimpi’s mental strength as the key to the player’s breakthrough, and indeed the key to his ongoing success.
Mapimpi has scored 20 tries in 25 Tests. At this stage, he boasts the best try-scoring strike rate in Bok history.
“Makazole was a late developer,” notes Stick. “His attitude as well as his level of fitness set him apart – and that was crucial, as it allowed him to seize the opportunity when it was eventually presented.
“For a long time now, he’s been one of the fittest players in South African rugby. He hasn’t lost that attacking edge, but I know how hard he works on the fundamentals and how he tries to get involved across the park.
“Hopefully he will continue to do that and realise the dream of representing the Boks at the 2023 World Cup.”
The modern game is demanding, and it’s not uncommon for players to retire in their early thirties. But at the age of 31, Mapimpi remains on an upward trajectory.
“It’s no secret,” the player says with a laugh, after he’s asked how his body continues to deliver on a regular basis for the Sharks and Boks. “It’s all about looking after your body, eating the right things and working hard.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, because so much can happen between now and the World Cup in France. It would be great to get there, but for now I’ve just got to keep an eye on what’s in front of me.
“Every single time I step out on the field, I’m trying to lift myself and to be better than before. Rugby brings that out in me – a desire to be better. As long as I can play, I’m going to keep pushing myself.”
Again, Stick – who has mentored Mapimpi since the player’s early days at Border – puts Mapimpi’s words into sharp perspective.
“He’s just so humble, and that has a lot to do with where he comes from. It was only seven or eight years ago when he was playing club rugby, and he was not in a good situation,” Stick says. “He doesn’t want to go back to that. He also knows that he’s playing for something bigger than himself. He wants to give hope to all in the rural areas.”
Indeed, it could be said that Makazole Mapimpi – the player who fought his way out of the most hopeless situation to become one of South African rugby’s brightest beacons of hope – is a shining example to all. DM168
Map1mp1: The Makazole Mapimpi Story premiers 27 March at 20:00 on DSTV channels SuperSport Rugby and SuperSport Grandstand.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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