Siya Kolisi – South Africa’s Sporting Nelson Mandela

“All I want to do is to inspire my kids and every other kid in South Africa. 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.
“A lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity. There are so many untold stories. I’m hoping that we have just given people a bit of hope to pull together as a country to make it better.”

– Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s 2019 World Cup Winning Captain

Who could deny South Africa their well deserved win over England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final in Japan? 

Following England’s convincing demolition of the New Zealand All-Blacks in the semi-final the bookies were predicting that England only had to turn up to lift the Webb Ellis trophy. Indeed, South Africa’s lackluster – perhaps even lucky – win over Wales in the other semi-final didn’t inspire confidence. Until now, their game was ponderous and in the eyes of many commentators, negative. They had also lost to New Zealand in the group stage which didn’t augur well against the team that had sent the All-Blacks packing. 

A bust of Nelson Mandela looks on as Siya Kolisi leads his team to victory

But what a game of attrition they produced in the final. From the outset their physicality rocked England. It is significant that England, who made the All-Blacks at times look amateurish in the semi-final, failed to score a try. All 12 England points came from penalties. 

Every scrum, bar one, was dominated by South Africa who forced penalty after penalty as they wore the English pack down. South Africa’s dominance in the scrum was the telltale sign that this was to be another glorious 12th. It was 12 years between South Africa’s first win in 1995 and their second win in 2007. And now 12 years since then.  

Of far greater significance, however, is the impact the victory can have back home in South Africa.

In 1995, as the first democratically elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela donned the Springboks jersey and called upon the nation to back the boys in green. That victory, lead by Francois Pienaar, has become legendary and the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster – Invictus – starring Matt Damon as Pienaar, and Morgan Freeman as Mandela. 

Siyamthanda (Siya) Kolisi

Perhaps, of even greater significance, in a country that has (momentarily?) lost its way, is the story of the 2019 South African captain, Siyamthanda (Siya) Kolisi, and the Mandela-like interview he gave in the immediate aftermath of victory. 

Kolisi had yet to be conceived by his teenage parents when Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990. He was born on June 16, 1991, as negotiations had commenced between the ANC and the Apartheid Government, lead by F.W. de Klerk. He was a mere toddler when Nelson Mandela became President of the Republic of South Africa on May 10, 1994. And he was just four years, a week and a day, when South Africa won its first Rugby World Cup on June 24, 1995 on home territory. 

Sayi Kolisi was born in Swide township, just outside Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape. Too poor and immature to take care of their son, Sayi’s parents left him in the care of his grandmother who cleaned kitchens to make ends meet. The future captain of South Africa was raised in a tin hut and slept on a pile of cushions. Inspired by the heroes of 1995, of which just one was a black man, Kolishi and his friends played rugby in their bare feet on empty spaces that allowed the imagination of the township kids to breath. 

Aged 12, he went for a provincial trial in boxer shorts as his grandmother was too poor to purchase a rugby kit. Soon after he was spotted by Andrew Kayidakis, a scout for a private rugby playing school, who negotiated a full scholarship for young Kolishi. 

The boy’s mum died when he was 15 and his grandmother died in his arms a year later. Here was a kid born a galaxy beyond a silver spoon in what one foreign leader might consider an African ‘sh**hole.’ Yet here was a child with character and dignity, who learned from his grandmother the grace of integrity, hard work and the joy of being a team player.

In advance of the 2019 World Cup Final, the 2007 Springboks World Cup winning captain, John Smit, recalled that when his team were also beating England at the Stade de France in Paris, 16-year-old Siya Kolisi was observing it in a township shebeen because his home had no television. 

“… if Siya touches that trophy on Saturday… I tell you,
it will be a much bigger moment than 1995. Much bigger.
It will improve the trajectory of our nation.”

“It was iconic,” says Smit, “when Francois lifted the World Cup with Mandela in 1995, and it was awesome to do it myself with Thabo Mbeke in 2007. But if Siya touches that trophy on Saturday… I tell you, it will be a much bigger moment than 1995. Much bigger. It will improve the trajectory of our nation.”

I tell you, it will be a much bigger moment than 1995. Much bigger. It will improve the trajectory of our nation.”

Smit is not exaggerating. Rugby matters in many places around the globe but only in South Africa can it change a country as it did in 1995. Nelson Mandela taught his people that by embracing the once internationally reviled Springboks team, they could become a symbol of transformative hope in his quest to build a new South Africa – the Rainbow Nation in which all colours and ethnicities would find a common home. In South Africa rugby has the power to modify political views and renew wholesome aspirations. 

Speaking immediately after the game Siya Kolisi, unwittingly, and with consummate humility and reserve, assumed a persona that echoed that of the Father of the Nation, Nelson Mandela. Madiba, no doubt, was smiling down upon him, as Kolisi reaffirmed the vision of the man who led South Africa out of the nightmare of Apartheid.

In a heartfelt refection about the challenges South Africa face, just minutes after the game ended, Kolisi, in an impromptu commentary that many consider the greatest ever delivered by a winning captain, shared his hope that the win would unite the country once again: 

“I’m so grateful for everything this team has been through, we’ve faced a lot of challenges but the people of South Africa got in behind us and we are so grateful.

“We have so many problems in our country, but to have a team like this, we come from different backgrounds, different races and we came together with one goal and we wanted to achieve it.

“I really hope we’ve shown South Africa that we can pull together to achieve something.”

Siya Kolisi giving his post-match interview

In answer to the question, “What does this mean for South Africa?”, Kolisi responded:

“Since I have been alive I have never seen South Africa like this. With all the challenges we have, the coach said to us that we are not playing for ourselves any more, we are playing for the people back home – that is what we wanted to do today.

“We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people – there were screens there – and people in the rural areas. Thank you so much, we appreciate the support.

“We love you South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”

Speaking later at the post match press conference, alongside the South African coach, Rassie Erasmus, with the golden Webb Ellis trophy before them, Kolisi told the world’s press:

“All I want to do is to inspire my kids and every other kid in South Africa. 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.

“A lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity. There are so many untold stories. I’m hoping that we have just given people a bit of hope to pull together as a country to make it better.”

Africa needs more days like this. Days when it realizes intuitively that, together, united and steadfast, it can meet any challenge and emerge victorious and stand before the world, shoulders back, with heads held high, inferior to no one. 

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Xhosa)
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo (Xhosa)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu, (Zulu)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho Iwayo. (Zulu)
Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso, (Sesotho)
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho, (Sesotho)
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso, (Sesotho)
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika, South Afrika. (Sesotho)

Lord bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high,
Hear our petitions
Lord bless us, your children.
Lord we ask You to protect our nation,
Intervene and end all conflicts,
Protect us, protect our nation,
Protect South Africa, South Africa.
Out of the blue of our heavens,
From the depths of our seas,
Over everlasting mountains,
Where the echoing crags resound,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.