South Africa

Analysis

Siya Kolisi and the sound of rugby’s last glass ceiling shattering

New Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi during a training session in Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 May 2018. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

A historic moment beckons for the Springboks over the weekend as they kick off their three-match Test series against England. Siya Kolisi will captain the side – a monumental moment when the historic symbolism of rugby in South Africa is considered.

On 23 June 2018, when the Springboks play their final Test against England in the upcoming three-match tour, it will be almost 23 years to the day since South Africa won the rugby World Cup on home soil.

It’s hard to say what the sentiment towards the Springboks will be by the time that fixture comes along. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the moment.

More than two decades ago, in front of a sell-out crowd in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela, wearing the number six jersey, handed over the World Cup to Francois Pienaar.

It was a small gesture on the surface, but as became increasingly apparent, it was monumental in its symbolism.

Before that, though, the Springboks will also play England on 16 June. It’ll be newly appointed captain Siya Kolisi’s birthday. The day is commemorated as Youth Day, in remembrance of the gross injustices of the Soweto Uprisings.

So many numbers, so much relevance.

But the most relevant of all numbers will come this weekend. Kolisi will captain South Africa in their opening fixture against England. The first black African to officially captain the country in a Test match.

Read that paragraph again and let it sink in.

More than two decades since apartheid ended. More than two decades since South Africa was readmitted to international rugby. More than two decades since Mandela wore the number six jersey and only now, for the first time, a player of the country’s largest demographic will captain the team.

That Kolisi happens to be black shouldn’t matter – and identity politics can be a slippery slope – but in the South African context, it’s hugely significant because of the historical context of rugby in the country.

While in the very early 1900s, rugby was viewed as a means of reconciliation, it would evolve to become inextricably linked with Afrikaner nationalism. Even the name of the national team, Springboks, is still Afrikaans.

In this context, Mandela’s gesture all those years ago was so profoundly significant. But it is also in this context that Kolisi’s appointment represents such an incredible moment in the country’s history.

Politics, identity and race have always been bedfellows in South Africa. A KumbayaWorld Cup trophy lifting with PJ Powers booming in the background wasn’t going to divorce these underlying complexities.

SA History Online notes that as rugby became progressively part of the Afrikaner identity, the success of the national team was often seen as a proxy for the accomplishments of die volk themselves.

As the years ticked along, increasingly, Afrikaners viewed themselves as the custodians of the game. As was noted in the book The Craven Tapes, the Afrikaner Broederbond held positions of esteem in the rugby community and they would often meddle with selections. Players and coaches were sometimes chosen allegedly because of their association with the Broederbond.

Some might argue that sport always has been and remains the most popular display of nationalism. The difference is that rarely does passion for sport go hand-in-hand with passion for a fascist and racist regime.

With rugby in South Africa, it was different.

Professor Albert Grundlingh, meticulously detailed the intersection of Afrikaner nationalism and rugby in the book, Beyond the Tryline, co-written with professor Andre Odendaal and Burridge Spies.

In the chapter, Playing for Power: Rugby, Afrikaner nationalism and masculinity in South Africa, he explored the sport’s strong links to Afrikaans culture and Stellenbosch.

The symbolism of Afrikaner excellence that was forged through rugby would later extend to the bad blood between Afrikaans and English speaking people, but as long as English speakers were white, they were still eligible for selection for the national team.

When racial segregation was legislated, this wasn’t the case for black and coloured players.

Rugby, though, continued to thrive in these communities even if the facilities were sorely lacking despite the frequently repeated fallacy that the apartheid government provided “equal but separate” resources to everyone.

The history of the non-racial South African Rugby Union (Sacos), founded in 1966, is often glossed over, suggestions that rugby was not popular across the board is ill-informed.

But while many played, rugby was still considered to belong to one group. Beyond the Tryline, quotes Tommy Bedford, an English speaking Springbok captain as saying that the South African rugby establishment worked to “mainly to promote the Afrikaner, his Church, his Party, his Government and the Broederbond, but all of this was to the detriment of rugby, sport and South Africa”.

And so, when Kolisi leads the Springboks out on to the field this weekend, the context and the relevance of what his appointment represents is deeply profound.

That he’ll be doing so against England – that old foe of the very people who in some corners might feel that he doesn’t belong – is almost delightfully ironic.

Kolisi’s appointment has been overwhelmingly supported – scratch the surface and out of the woodwork crawl a handful of apartheid-era prototypes threatening to cancel their DStv subscriptions and bemoaning how “their game” has now been taken over by “those people”.

Such attitudes are jarring and the logical response would be to simply ignore such despots. That’s what the man himself is doing. At his first press conference as skipper, a journalist had the cheek to ask Kolisi if he thought he was a political appointment. His answer was calm and composed.

“That’s just life, that’s how things happen. I can’t focus on what people are saying. Sometimes I’m also unhappy with other peoples’ decisions.”

“Rassie is not the type of guy to make (fake) decisions. I’ve known him since (I was) 18. He’s straightforward with me. I always know where I stand with him.

“I’m not a politician and Rassie is no politician. I have no questions or doubts over my appointment. I’m here to inspire not only black people, I’m here to inspire everyone. I represent South Africa, not just one race group.”

And for those who are so possessive over their game? Kolisi will give his all for them, too.

“Tremendous faith has been placed in me. I’m going to give my best because of that. I have a responsibility to perform at my best every Saturday, that’s the simple thing that’s actually being asked of me.”

Nobody would have begrudged a less than polite or a more curt answer, but that the captain took his time to answer with poise is a mark of his character – and it wasn’t just for show.

Speak to anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you similar anecdotes about the man’s humility and consideration for his fellow human beings.

Kolisi’s story has been widely chronicled, but it’s worth a summation to underscore just how remarkable his rise has been. He grew up with very little, often sleeping on the floor on a bed made of pillows. He’d often go hungry. He cared for his ailing grandmother who eventually died in his arms when he was just a teenager.

Kolisi represents everything we want South Africans to be. Resilient, kind and considerate.

But in the sporting context, he is the exception rather than the rule. His story is captivating and inspiring. He worked damn hard to get where he is, but hard work would mean little without access to resources and opportunities.

The pathways to sporting excellence remain elitist and riddled with obstacles for those who come from similar backgrounds because the structures were established over decades to serve only an elite few.

Re-configuring these structures and, in some cases attitudes, is far from a done job.

The most recently released Eminent Persons Group Report, which looks at the status of transformation in South African sport, sheds some light to just how inaccessible rugby remains to the majority of South Africans.

The report notes that while the number of so-called “township-based clubs” outnumber other clubs, the comparative facilities available are shocking.

While sporting facilities are lacking across the board, “township-based clubs” have access to an average* of 0.1 facilities each. All other clubs, around 0.6.

In terms of financial support, the picture is similarly grim. The report, which relies on input from the South African rugby union, notes that while “township clubs received in R5.4-million in financial support over the last year, other clubs received R8.5-million”.

For “township-based primary schools” there’s an average* of just 0.2 facilities per school. For the rest, it’s 0.5. It’s slightly better at senior school level with an average* of 0.5 facilities for “township based” schools compared to 0.8 for others.

That Kolisi’s journey began in one of these terribly under-resourced communities, where he was brimming with talent and just desperate to be nurtured, cannot be ignored.

For many other kids who, like him, might be playing in silk boxers instead of rugby shorts, Kolisi’s rise to the very top of elitist rugby echelons matters because it provides but a morsel of hope.

Hope, as in Kolisi’s case, sometimes blossoms into reality. But it never happens without somebody willing to kick the wheels of motion into gear. It also never happens with just hard work.

The new Springbok captain will be surrounded by a lot of noise. But that sound you’re hearing isn’t the hum of detractors. It’s the shattering of a glass ceiling. DM

* Note: average facilities is based on the data in the EPG report which shows the total number of clubs or schools participating and the total number of facilities available to these schools or clubs. Facility is defined as a single field and the report does not take into account schools that might have multiple fields or schools and clubs that might have to share a single field

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