Kolisi’s race: Nothing and everything

Siya Kolisi’s appointment as Springbok captain has nothing to do with race but means everything to it.

No one deserves the position more than the Stormers flanker. He has been a barricade in the back row during troubled days and is always a prudent pick for a consistent presence. At the Western Cape franchise, his leadership capabilities have already been thoroughly proven for more than a year now.

But, in our beloved, complex South Africa, milestones are never merely an achievement. Kolisi is the first black Springbok Test captain, something that is important to many people.

“I played in an era where it would have only been a dream for a black guy to be captain of the Boks,” says former Cheetahs full-back Tsepo Kokoali. “The fact that it’s not a quota call or a transformation call but actually the guy that’s best for the job, that leaves me with pride.

“It will open a lot of doors. It will stir things up. I don’t think we should harp on the fact that he’s a black captain, I think we should harp on the fact that he’s the right man for the job. I just think we need to get behind him and support him as best we can. But definitely he will be opening doors at senior level for black guys to come in and have their say and be taken seriously.”

Kolisi will take charge next weekend when the Green and Gold meet England for a three-match series. Before that, Pieter-Steph du Toit will captain the one game against Wales in Washington on Saturday.

Coach Rassie Erasmus will be desperate for positive performances to begin his tenure after the past two years saw the team slip to sixth in the world rankings, wedged between fifth-place Scotland and seventh-place Wales. With the World Cup just over a year away, little time remains to carve a strategic imprint, not to mention to establish a figurehead to lead the side in the tournament.

READ MORE: Siya Kolisi to captain Springboks against England

Former Blue Bulls lock Mthunzi Mabeta acknowledges that Kolisi was chosen for his talent but equally talks up the significance of his colour. “As black players in this country it definitely raises your confidence as well. You think, ‘Hey look, maybe there’s an inclusive culture that everyone is buying into, including the management, from the top down’ .

“Being the captain of the Springboks, yes, it helps a lot to address some of the issues. But you would hope that the people behind the scenes are also buying into this, and that this is an analogy of them trying to bring diversity to their portfolios, to their boards.”

It’s those very people behind the scenes who arguably have been the biggest contributors to the transformation issues facing the sport. The structures remain extremely white. One need only look at the South African Rugby Union (Saru) board. Not that having black leaders at the helm of Saru has helped transform elite rugby beyond the minimum required.

Does having a black captain make a dent against the structures that prop up racial inequality?

“I wouldn’t say it goes a long way. It’s something where a conversation has been had for some time now,” Mabeta says.

READ MORE: Erasmus: Kolisi captain appointment had nothing to do with Willemse walkout

A product of the structural issues that pervade is the limited number of players of colour at franchise level. It’s widely perceived that decent representation numbers at top high school level do not translate into senior caps in provincial and Super Rugby games. Kokoali has given the matter much thought.

“I actually want to get involved and try to change that. At Craven Week, it’s like 63% of the kids are black and then between 18 and 23 they just disappear. We need to find out where are they going, what’s happening to them, are they getting discouraged?”

Kolisi is from Zwide township in Port Elizabeth, arguably the area most guilty of losing talent to the post-schooling abyss.

Mabeta, also from the Eastern Cape, has started initiatives that aim to offer infrastructure to rural children, giving them access to nearby towns. He dreams of creating a platform for players to express their abilities; one that differs from
the traditional support structures given to established high schools.

“We call out to the corporate sector to get involved in this and not do it through the traditional Saru programmes where I do feel there are cultural barriers to entering,” Mabeta says. “Who in Saru will be able to understand what is needed in a place that the majority of them haven’t been to? There are programmes going out there, there are rugby players that want to give back, that are passionate about it.”

Kolisi’s ascent to the pinnacle of South African rugby will surely serve as inspiration to those who stand to benefit from any such initiative.

On the other side of the equation, it’s possible we’re looking too deeply into the significance of the matter. Gcobani Bobo believes this is a moment to purely appreciate the rugby achievement.

“Not just on the field but off the field, he has just been such an example of a person suitable to lead the young men for tour,” the commentator and former Sharks centre says. “It’s not really [a victory for transformation]. I don’t think it’s something for people to take away from the rugby player that he has been. Siya was the vice-captain last year, so I don’t understand why everyone is so gung-ho about it.

“He’s done it at junior level, he’s done it with the Stormers; I just don’t see the fuss. I think we would be taking away from who the player is. He’s a rugby player. The guy’s been playing rugby ever since he went to Grey High.”

Although many would love to embrace Bobo’s words, in a country grappling with the legacy of brutal racism, Kolisi’s elevation is an achievement embraced especially by many black South Africans who still feel excluded from the game. For South African rugby, perhaps this is the moment that could bring the fiction of a country united behind the team at the 1995 World Cup so much closer to reality.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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