South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi cemented his place in the World rugby history when he led his men to a famous victory over a battling England side in the Rugby World Cup Final in Yokohama, Japan on Saturday.
Kolisi who also in that Rugby World Cup final match earned his 50th cap for the Springboks became the first black Springboks captain to lift the trophy after Francois Pienaar in 1995 and John Smit in 2007.
From growing up in a dusty, poverty-stricken township on the eastern coast of South Africa to the Yokohama International Stadium caps a remarkable journey for Kolisi.
As Siya Kolisi held the Webb Ellis Cup high above his head to mark South Africa’s enthronement as world champions, you could sense the unseen scale of the occasion. Amid the agony and ecstasy wrapped up in this coronation, there was something different, something intangible hanging forcibly in the air.
Rugby matters in many places around the world, but only in South Africa can it change the nation around it. Captains and presidents, politics and power, new dreams and old scars.
Because for a country that continues to bear the ugly scars of its divided past, the sight of the first black South African leading the Springboks to glory carries far more weight and worth than the old gold pot placed between his hands in Yokohama.
“Siya’s captaincy not only epitomises the transformation of a sport that was once racially segregated; it is the power of a dream fulfilled. This is the dream of a young man of humble circumstances to one day wear the green and gold jersey, and of a country that has enabled him to see it realised,” Ramaphosa told reporters after getting his chance to lift the famous trophy just like former South African Presidents Nelson Mandela in 1995 and Thabo Mbeki in 2007.
Kolisi therefore now stands as a critical link between the past and future. He was born on 16 June 1991, one day before the repeal of apartheid – brutal laws that enforced discrimination against black people in every aspect of their lives. Separate land. Separate public transport. Separate schools.
“For a young kid from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth to rise above circumstances and become Springbok captain and lead the way‚ he has just been inspirational to South Africans from all walks of life‚” teammate Tendai Mtawarira said in the build-up to Saturday’s final in Japan.
The influx of players post-apartheid and an overhaul of selection policies has enhanced the racial composition of the squad.
“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.” said Hanyani Shimange, former Springboks prop.
Before the Springboks final in which they dominated a seemingly weary England side, Kolisi had emphasised the need for the team to battle extra hard and claim victory, critically important to unite 55 million people across the entire nation.
“Yes, we do have many different races in our country, and 11 different languages. It is one of the positives of our country. It’s really beautiful (and) that’s why we are called the “Rainbow Nation,” he said.
“Winning is very important for our country. It just shows that when we decide to work together for one goal or as a team and as a country, we can make anything happen.
That Kolisi has made it this far is a story of stoicism and self-belief.
Freddie Makoki, president of Zwide United rugby club, who played with Kolisi’s father and grandfather and watched the young Siya grow is full of praise for what the young Kolisi has managed to achieve to change a nation’s belief and many a young man’s dreams.
“Sport can bring people together in this country. There are places you can’t walk at night, because of criminals. Sport is the only vehicle that can change that. If you take those boys and put them in sport it can change them and it can change our society.”
“Siya has been an incredible role model for children here. Whenever he comes to visit you’ll see the youngsters coming out to see him. Everyone in the townships wants to be closer to him.
“He is a son of our soil. If you could have seen how full the taverns were for the semi-final you would not believe it. All of these people are now supporting the Springboks.
“It makes me so proud to see him in the Springbok jersey, to see the crowds at the game, calling out “Siya! Siya!”
“You can see it in the faces of the people of this country how much it meant to have Siya as captain. He is a true hero of modern South Africa.”
And so Kolisi carried the weight of heavy expectation on his shoulders but better still he did it with great aplomb. Dreams and messy pasts, old heroes and deep-rooted struggles. The Springboks themselves do not exist in a vacuum, immune to the discourse and narratives that dominate conversations back home.
Only a game, but so much more too. Ghosts all around him, perhaps a brighter new future for South Africans ahead.
By Gerald Dandah