Kolisi’s burden of being a black Springbok captain

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kolisi is not hindered by a diplomat’s tongue. But he is guided by a moral compass that seems to always point due north.

The “hoo-ha”, as Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus almost dismissively put it recently, around Siya Kolisi’s captaincy has died down. 

The time has now come for him to narrow his focus to what he was appointed to do – lead a rugby team.

Said hoo-ha was the sound of  South African rugby’s last glass ceiling being broken when, in June, Erasmus appointed Kolisi the first black Springbok captain in 127 years.

To put it into context, over the years South African rugby has had black presidents, a black managing director, a black board chairman, numerous black players, a black international record try scorer in Bryan Habana, and even black number 10s.

But a black captain always seemed a bridge too far until the 27-year-old, who interestingly enough was passed over for the position this time last year, finally got the job.

And so from the moment he led the Boks on to Ellis Park, the spiritual home of South African rugby, in the No. 6 jersey – which has, incidentally, been rendered iconic by Nelson Mandela after he wore it to the final of the 1995 World Cup final at the same stadium – the majority of the country has been trapped in a feel-good bubble.

“He’s had a lot of emotional stuff, positive emotional stuff, to carry on his shoulders and he carried it well and played reasonably well,” said Erasmus, “I think now you’ll see a Siya who’ll start playing really well because all the hoo-ha around the captaincy is starting to become normal.”

To get a sense of the public’s emotional outpouring, perhaps one should revisit the circumstances under which Kolisi was overlooked for the post last year. With then captain Warren Whiteley ruled out for the rest of the season due to injury, former Bok coach Allister Coetzee suddenly found himself in need of a replacement.

To many, Kolisi was the logical choice.

To many, Kolisi was the logical choice. Not only was he in the form of his life, he had captaining experience from leading the Stormers. But Coetzee went with Kolisi’s good friend, Stormers’ vice-captain, Eben Etzebeth, based on the less-than inspired reason that the latter had more Springbok experience.

At some level, Coetzee felt he was protecting Kolisi from the so-called “traditional” rugby fans in case things went wrong (Etzebeth’s career was not damaged by the Boks suffering their worst defeat in history under his leadership, while it is debatable that this would have been the case for Kolisi).

But all that did at the time was not only convince all and sundry that Coetzee’s tenure would never be about seizing the historic moment. It suggested he was projecting his “safety first” approach on to the fearless Kolisi.

A significant part of the excitement that greeted Erasmus’s bold announcement this year was due to the sheer relief that the moment had not forever been missed, and what it meant in the context of rugby’s uneasy relationship with black South Africans.

Given Kolisi’s poverty-stricken background as the child of teenage parents who was raised mostly by his grandmother in Zwide Township in Port Elizabeth, his ascent to the Springbok captaincy rewrites the rules of what is possible, regardless of one’s background.

“I don’t shy away from where I have come from and I’m aware that my story is a typical South African story in some ways,” the Bok skipper was recently quoted as saying in The Guardian. “It’s my motivation … I just think about where I’ve come from and about the people that look up to me. For me to be able to help people inspired by me, I have to play every week. That is my duty.”

[H]e is guided by a moral compass that seems to be always pointing due north.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Kolisi is not hindered by a diplomat’s tongue. But he is guided by a moral compass that seems to be always pointing due north. There’s an ease and honesty about him that allows him to treat everyone the same. He has the kind of understanding of South Africa that comes from having experienced the rough and the smooth in equal measure.

During his difficult upbringing in Zwide, he struggled for everything but still managed to facilitate his salvation through rugby. He also derives strength from his wife, a white woman, and their marriage being the subject of racial abuse on social media.

But Coetzee’s fears last year weren’t completely unwarranted. As the country’s first black Springbok captain, much responsibility rests on Kolisi’s shoulders. The weight of expectation to succeed as a representative of black South Africa must be crippling, while the need to prove the detractors that still mumble about his being a political appointment wrong must be constant.

Simply put, whenever things go wrong there will always be grumbles about him not being the right man for the job, and too often the insinuation will be it is because he is black. Thankfully, throughout his journey, black and white people have done their bit for his advancement. It’s something that has informed his leadership style, given all South Africa’s complexities.

“I’m not only trying to inspire black kids but people from all races,” he said at his first press conference as Bok captain. “When I’m on the field and I look into the crowd, I see people of all races and social classes. We as players represent the whole country.

“I tell my team-mates that you should never play just to represent one group. You can’t play to be the best black player or to be the best white player to appeal to a community; you have to play to be the best for every South African. We represent something much bigger than we can imagine.

 “I don’t think of myself in racial terms. When I walk out on the field I want to be the best flanker in the world. If you think in racial terms, you are limiting yourself and your horizons. Even though I’m black, I touch and inspire many people from all races. As rugby players we have a beautiful platform to showcase what being a South African could be.”

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