What Rugby Star Siya Kolisi Means to South Africa

Team captain Siya Kolisi of South Africa lifts the Webb Ellis Cup in victory.

Source David Rogers/Getty

Why you should care

Because the first-ever Black captain of the Springboks means more than a trophy.

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It was one of the all-time great celebratory moments in sports. Or outside of sports for that matter. Who can forget South African President Nelson Mandela, in his green No. 6 Springboks jersey, handing the Rugby World Cup trophy to captain Francois Pienaar after the nation’s 1995 triumph? It was a transcendent moment in a divided, but newly reconciled country. Twelve years later, in 2007, South Africa won its second title, with captain John Smit joining hands with Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki. 

And now, 12 years later once more, comes another title, another captain and another moment of triumph that might top them all. When Siya Kolisi, the first Black man to captain the Springboks, hoisted the Webb Ellis trophy in his green No. 6 jersey with a golden ticker-tape shower pouring down after his squad’s 32-12 victory over England on Saturday, it was not only the enduring image of the tournament, it was a potentially epoch-defining moment in South African history — a jubilant one that could not have come at a better time for the nation.

He played rugby on dirt fields, sometimes in only his boxer shorts.

Kolisi recently revealed that he watched the Springboks’ last title in 2007 at his local tavern because he had no television at home. And it wasn’t only a television that the 28-year-old flanker lacked. Born in the poor township of Zwide, just outside Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape, Kolisi slept on a pile of cushions on the living room floor. Since his teenage parents were too young and poor to take care of him, he was raised largely by his grandmother, who was a house cleaner. He played rugby on dirt fields, sometimes in only his boxer shorts. By the time the 16-year-old Kolisi was watching the 2007 World Cup, both his grandmother and his mother had died. 

Kolisi’s own life started to turn around when he won a rugby scholarship to an exclusive private school, eventually winning selection onto provincial and then national squads. At first, he was small and fast, a finesse player who had to be smarter than the stronger players around him. Eventually, he grew into his current 6-foot-2, 230-pound size and, after Saturday’s triumph, he has now played 50 matches for the national team, 20 as its captain. “Growing up, I never dreamed of a day like this at all,” Kolisi remarked after the game. “When I was a kid, all I was thinking about was getting my next meal.”

Kolisi’s ascent marks an astounding turnaround for South African rugby. For decades, it was nearly impossible for Black players to participate in the sport — except in Black-only leagues — as it remained largely a bastion of upper-class privilege. Despite the optics of the Mandela moment, the 1995 team had just a single Black player in the starting lineup (for a country that is about 75 percent Black) and, by the time of their next title in 2007, there were only two. Kolisi’s squad is conspicuously different, with six Black players in the starting XV, and 11 overall. 

Such a transformation means a great deal to South Africa, a nation in the midst of a major economic crisis with unemployment hovering near 30 percent. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus told his players that playing rugby was a “privilege” and that they owed it to their less-fortunate fans to play their hearts out. “Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure on you,” Erasmus told reporters on Saturday. “Rugby brings hope.”

South Africans should celebrate the victory, but time is running out on “hope” for people who are trying to find work and feed their families, says Steve Jackson, a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand who specializes in the sociocultural aspects of sports. “South African politicians need to learn the lessons of the Springboks: to focus on genuine equality, genuine teamwork and realizing that collective success will require collective cooperation and sharing.”

And perhaps more than any South African player before him, Kolisi — the humble leader with a big smile who was born one day before the repeal of apartheid in 1991 — embodies that spirit of hope and cooperation. “I always wondered if it was too much of a fairy tale to see Siya win the trophy,” Smit told BBC Radio 5, “but it could not have happened at a better time … It will have a significant impact on our country.”

And so another title for the Springboks, and another Mandela-like postgame moment for a new generation of South Africans. With Pienaar, Smit and current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa looking on in the stadium (and Mandela perhaps smiling from beyond), No. 6 lifted the gold trophy to the heavens. “A lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity. There are so many untold stories,” Kolisi observed after the game. “I’m hoping that we have just given people a bit of hope to pull together as a country to make it better.”

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