Kolisi inspires but race issues still stalk the Springboks
KOBE, Japan (AP) — It's a year-and-a-half since Siyamthanda Kolisi — Siya as he's known — was made the Springboks' first black captain. During that time, the question has naturally become less and less frequent.
It popped up again at the Rugby World Cup, though: What's it like to be South Africa's first black captain?
Siya smiled, thought, then answered:
"That's tough. I'm just very happy that I'm captain. Being the first black captain is not something that comes to mind," he said. "I'm just really happy I'm Springbok captain. It's a huge privilege as it is, and for anybody who comes from my community, or any community, I just want to represent all of them.
"Because at the end of the day I'm representing the whole of South Africa."
You don't find many international sports captains stressing they represent all of their country, not just part of it. But such is the complicated place of the Springboks rugby team in South Africa, even today. It's a team that's played politics almost as much as it's played rugby over the 128 years of its existence. It's also won two Rugby World Cup titles.
During apartheid, the all-white Springboks were one of the regime's most treasured assets. Proof, when they won, that apartheid was a success. When the apartheid-era Springboks lost, black South Africans cheered.
Incredibly, the 28-year-old Kolisi, born into tough poverty in a black township created by apartheid, wears the same Springbok emblem on his shirt, and wears it with pride.
The emblem's the same but the Springboks are changed and were changing even before Kolisi was made captain in May 2018. The Boks are on their way to being "transformed" as South Africa puts it. More representative of a country where whites make up less than 10% of the 57 million people.
Of the 31 players named in South Africa's Rugby World Cup squad, 12 are non-white. Better than the all-white teams of not long ago.
Coach Rassie Erasmus said his Springboks are a celebration of "so many different cultures, players, languages." There are at least four languages spoken among the Springboks. The 2019 Springboks should also be disconnected from apartheid. For example, both Sbu Nkosi, the dreadlocked black wing, and RG Snyman, the towering white Afrikaans forward, were born after apartheid ended. They are not alone in the squad in having no memory of it.
And yet race still stalks the Springboks. Two issues, both centered on race, have unsettled the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup.
Lock Eben Etzebeth, who is white, is accused of assaulting and racially abusing a black man back in South Africa before the World Cup . He denied the allegations but a civil court case is going ahead against him. Even though no criminal charges have been filed against Etzebeth, many South Africans, including political groups, have called for him to be thrown out of the squad. They've portrayed the alleged incident as an example of the inbuilt racism of white Springboks players.
A second situation at the end of South Africa's World Cup game against Italy in Japan stoked more anger, this time misplaced. Makazole Mapimpi, a black player, was walking toward a huddle of white players celebrating South Africa's win. He then turned and walked away.
The white players were accused of rejecting Mapimpi. It was completely misread. The players celebrating were a group of reserves and the huddle was for reserve players. Mapimpi was in the starting lineup and joined the starters in celebrating. A team quirk in how the Springboks sometimes celebrate. Mapimpi spoke out publicly to explain there was no racism.
There was still anger at home, and a sign of it from Erasmus, who defended his team from the unfair criticism.
"I will spend a minute-and-a-half on this because it does bother me a little bit that some people would see some negative in that," Erasmus told reporters.
"I can give you my word I would not, as a head coach, allow anything like that (racism) in the team, and there is nothing like that in the team. I can guarantee you that this team is such a nice, close-knit team, and there will never be something like that."
Then there's Kolisi, who talks racial harmony and also lives it.
Kolisi smiles a lot and greets almost everyone he comes across with a handshake, whether he knows them or not. He was particularly cheerful this week because his wife and two young children were on the way to Japan to watch him play. Kolisi's wife Rachel is white. They have two children together. They've also adopted Kolisi's half-brother and half-sister, who were living in foster care after Kolisi's mother died.
Kolisi has spoken of growing up poor as a boy, his abiding memory being he was always hungry. They never had enough to eat. He featured on one of a number of promotional videos for the World Cup telling the stories of various Springboks players. Even a dramatized video couldn't exaggerate the remarkable story of how he was inspired by rugby and the dream of being a Springbok.
Etzebeth is also his close friend and that's become complicated for Kolisi. Constrained, maybe, by the legal case and an internal South African rugby investigation into the Etzebeth incident, Kolisi hasn't spoken out in defense of his friend.
When asked, Kolisi said that the team's focusing only on rugby. The Springboks have been about good when you see Kolisi. And about bad at certain times in their history. But they've never been only about rugby.