How South Africa’s rugby World Cup-winning captain embodies the spirit of black people in the country

November 04, 2019 at 09:00 am | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Staff Writer

November 04, 2019 at 09:00 am | Opinions & Features

South Africa has the most successful rugby national team in the world along with New Zealand. The Rainbow Nation and the Kiwis have both won the rugby World Cup three times apiece.

South Africa’s third triumph is the latest in the quadrennial event after the Springboks, the national team’s nickname, beat England 32-12 in the championship finale in Japan on November 3.

But for one South African in particular, Japan 2019 was reward for a personal journey embedded in strife and struggle. Siya Kolisi, the captain of the national team, never thought he would come this far but when he did, he dared to win it all.

Kolisi is the first black captain to lead South Africa’s rugby team.

In 1995 when the then newly-democratic country hosted and won the showpiece, South Africa was captained by Jacobus Francois Pienaar. In 2007, the team won the tournament in France while captained by John Smit.

Actor Matt Damon even played Pienaar in the historical drama Invictus, which also featured Morgan Freeman as the venerated Nelson Mandela.

The film told the story of how the country’s 75% black people were begged by Mandela to support a team whose nickname was derived from a symbol of apartheid.

To compound matters, rugby is a sport mainly played by South Africa’s white people and the 1995 team had only one black man, Chester Williams.

A far cry from underdog status in 1995, the odds in 2019 were not stacked against South Africa. But for Kolisi, a black man, leading the Springboks was not a foreseeable berth.

Kolisi was born to teenage parents in Zwide, an impoverished town outside Port Elizabeth some 28 years ago. His parents were incapable of raising him so they left him in the care of his maternal grandmother.

Kolisi’s life was just like that of any other black kid growing up underprivileged in South Africa. There is schooling in less-than-standard conditions; there is sports, and there is an abyss of hope that one day, something comes to take you away to the greener pastures absent at your end.

At 12, that something came for Kolisi. A rugby coach at a private school, Andrew Hayidakis, saw the gangly preteen playing rugby and offered him a scholarship.

Sadly, his mother died when he was 15. His grandmother would go the same way shortly afterward. It became quite apparent at that point that Kolisi had to excel at rugby as there was very little to fall back on.

Former Springbok player Hanyani Shimange, told the BBC last month about Kolisi: “His story is unique. Previous generations of black rugby players were not given the same opportunities, purely because of South Africa’s laws. He’s living the dream of people who weren’t given the same opportunities as him.”

“He’s grabbed those opportunities. He’s a good man, a humble individual,” Shimange added.

A young man with nothing to his name and home works determinedly with the opportunity that he was given. Now, he is genuinely a world champion. That is simply Kolisi’s story.

But Kolisi’s story is also the promise of South Africa even 25 years after the country overcame its nasty apartheid era. This is a promise that was specifically made to young black South Africans.

“You will be given a chance at writing your own story of success”, said the African National Congress (ANC), that has ruled South Africa since the elections of 1994.

Political freedom for the country’s overwhelming black population was seen as an opportunity at economic freedom too.

So far, the promise has not been fulfilled for many. And for some of the few like Kolisi who have been raised from poverty, it is in no particular thanks to the government.

South Africa’s unemployment numbers hover around 29%, a 16-year high. 63% of the unemployed are between the youthful ages of 15 and 34.

Youth graduate unemployment itself (ages between 15 and 24) is worse than the national rate, coming in at over 55% in the first quarter of 2019.

The government argues that education still remains the best chance people have at escaping poverty. But this does not translate into any tangibility since retail and manufacturing numbers have also been quite abysmal.

In 2018, the World Bank announced that South Africa was the most unequal country in the world. The wealth gap between the poor and the rich has actually worsened since 2011 and more and more people are unable to afford a minimum of $1.20 a day.

There is a racial dimension to who has food to eat in South Africa as the average black family owns less than 4% of what the average white family wealth in the country.

A little less than 10% of South Africans are white.

Land reforms, a holdover from apartheid, remains an issue. So are the attempts at asking the rich to pay a fairer share in taxes.

Young black South Africans have found violent ways to channel their frustrations with xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans who have migrated to find opportunities in the country.

From all charitable perspectives, South Africa seems like a country that needs the hope Kolisi currently embodies even if many cannot have the opportunities he was given.

In the aftermath of the World Cup victory, Kolisi said: “A lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity and there are so many untold stories… Growing up, I never dreamed of a day like this at all. When I was a kid, all I was thinking about was getting my next meal.”

The next meals are no problem for Kolisi anymore. Now, he has been thrust into a place where he has to mean more than just a sports team captain to the millions who look like him.

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