Eastern Cape stars lost in white space

Springbok Solly Tyibilika grew up in New Brighton (Anthony Phelps/Reuters)

Springbok Solly Tyibilika grew up in New Brighton (Anthony Phelps/Reuters)

Siya Kolisi and Mzwandile Stick are both incredible men with stories that start in Port Elizabeth townships. They are the kinds of heroes we need: worthy of all of the hype.

These are not their stories. These stories belong to their neighbours, Siyanda Mangaliso and Solomzi “Solly” Tyibilika.

Siya and Siya were neighbours only at their hostel at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth.
Kolisi’s family lives in Zwide, while Mangaliso’s family lives in Walmer township. Both were identified for their rugby talent and provided bursaries to Grey, where they thrived.

Grey High School boys doing their rugby war cry.

“They even had a scheduled time to brush your teeth,” Kolisi once told me, with the most enthusiasm I have ever witnessed about dental hygiene.

Siya and Siya became best friends. They played No7 and 8 on the first team, captained by Mangaliso. In a 2009 interview, Kolisi called Mangaliso his “biggest influence”. Both had professional contracts before they left school.

My husband Mpho and I met Siya Mangaliso when we moved to Port Elizabeth to participate in the ill-fated “rebirth” of Eastern Province Rugby. I first heard of him when Eastern Province academy manager Robbie Kempson credited the 21-year-old captain for his outstanding leadership and play following a win. “As always,” he emphasised.

We got to know Siya well. He came over regularly with his six-year-old nephew. He was smart, charismatic, handsome and genuine.

Mpho picked him up in the mornings for practice. We lived in Walmer Heights: just 3km from Walmer township, yet a whole world away. 

Siya had returned home to help his mother after his older brother died. They were the primary caretakers for his nephew, who was deaf and HIV-positive.

One morning, Mpho’s phone rang at 5am. “They are burning everything,” Siya said breathlessly. “I can’t get out. They are blocking the entrance. I am going to go to the other side to see if it is open.”

In June 2012, service delivery protests in Walmer township escalated into riots. To control black people’s movements, townships were designed with limited entrances and exits. Walmer township has only two: both were blocked and burning.

Siya had woken up before dawn, hoping to get to practice before the protests started. But they had not stopped since the night before. He planned to run to the opposite entrance and sneak out. He called again at 5.30am to report that it was blocked too.

In Walmer Heights, we were advised to take alternate routes to avoid the riots. Our neighbours complained about traffic, housekeepers not coming to work and the mess protesters were making in the city.

Siya Mangaliso never made it to practice that day.

In September that year, he suffered a knee injury. The team did not provide health insurance. His medical savings had all been used and a scan would have to be funded from his own pocket. For six weeks, Siya wore a brace and tried to rehabilitate his knee with physical therapy before someone organised an MRI. He needed surgery.

At the end of 2013, Siya tested positive for an illegal substance and was banned from rugby for two years. He lost his contract.

I saw Mangaliso in 2016 at Kolisi’s wedding. It was the first time since we had left Port Elizabeth three years before. His shame was palpable: it broke my heart. He even apologised for disappointing us.

Siya was rebuilding himself as a trainer, but said many people had distanced themselves. Kolisi remained his most supportive friend but most others from the rugby world had fallen away.

I told him that we all make mistakes; that he is not defined by his. He was coming back from injury and his livelihood was at stake. Most of us receive grace in our worst moments: he deserved at least the same. 

I left that beautiful wedding heavy-hearted: Mangaliso stuck with me. I worried he might not overcome his own shame. He believed his invitation into the rugby world was based on his successes, not his whole self. When we select kids based on their ability, we tell them that is the only part we welcome. 

I am sure the coaches excused him for missing rugby practice the day of the protests. People may have made an effort to help Mangaliso or “fix” some aspect of his life. But I doubt anyone knew he was running panicked through the pre-dawn streets to avoid disappointing them.

I am certain he never got to convey how it made him feel, just as he never shared the burdens of poverty, the scars of loss or the reasons he stayed at home. He left those at the door when he left one world, as a way of belonging to another.

Fourteen kilometres from Walmer township is New Brighton, distinguished by its long, narrow two-toned duplexes. Mzwandile Stick grew up in Moduka Road, a short walk up the street from his friend and rugby mentor Solomzi “Solly” Tyibilika. 

Solly was shot dead in a Crossroads tavern in November 2011, almost exactly eight years ago. He was 32 years old. I never met him, although I do have a photo of him and Mpho from the Southern Kings vs British Lions match in 2009. 

Solly Tyibilika was the first black African Springbok ever to score a Test try, in a 2004 match against Scotland. There had been 874 tries before his.

Siya Mangaliso (the tackler) and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi both went to Grey High School (Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images) 

Every single person who talks about Solly as a player speaks with frustrated awe. Awe at his talent and capabilities; frustration because he could never cope in rugby structures.

At his funeral, Stick told the story of how Solly used to answer “L High School” when people asked him which school he attended. Stick went to Newell. It was less of a mouthful to non-isiXhosa speakers and sounded more prestigious than Loyiso. Everyone laughed.

Solly stories are countless. “He loved his beer and he loved to train,” says roommate and friend Lubabalo Mpongoshe.

He could show up after a wild night and still outrun everyone on the field. He often did not pitch up at all. Regardless of his salary, he always made his way back to the townships. “It was the only place he was ever comfortable,” says Mpongoshe.

Coaches “tried” to reign him in but, ultimately, he felt that the good he could achieve on the field was not worth the hassle off it. Solly played 158 games, for Griquas, Lions, Border and Sharks, before ending up at Hamilton Rugby Club in Cape Town.

The club provided Solly with a flat in Sea Point. His girlfriend and children lived there, but he opted to live in Crossroads. He loved his family and visited regularly, but spent the bulk of his time in the township.

His death brought a flurry of media coverage. All called it tragic. Most blamed him. Some did it in a roundabout way; others worked very hard to turn Solly into a gangster.

Yet no journalist could find evidence of this. In fact, it is difficult to find anybody who’ll speak badly about Solly at all. He was kind-hearted and captivating; loved by his family, friends and teammates.

Solly struggled. He struggled when his parents died young and his older brothers became his caretakers. He struggled to handle his money when his Springbok earnings paid more in one day than his family members made in a year. He struggled to understand and show love. He struggled with English and Afrikaans. He struggled to contain and channel his frustration. He struggled to fit into a world that had nothing in common with the one he considered home.

Struggling does not make someone a bad person, nevermind a gangster who “earned his own death”. Yet we seem as hungry for this narrative as we are for the “rags to riches” one.

One of the many tragedies of his story is how many people avoided self-reflection by making Solly the sole author of his own demise. Missing from the editorials were insights into how we can help prevent this from happening again; how we can accommodate kids with similar backgrounds, instead of putting the onus to adapt strictly on them. 

Two weeks ago, the world got a glimpse of Eastern Cape talent. The region has a long, proud black rugby culture that has been pushed to the sidelines: originally by apartheid and then through marginalisation and the lack of meaningful pipelines. Access remains limited to those players deemed exceptional and able to adapt to a system built by and for others. 

There are far more Siya Mangalisos and Solly Tyibilikas than there are Siya Kolisis and Mzwandile Sticks.

Rumours inside the rugby world indicate change might be coming. I hope this is true: I hope we are inspired enough to drop exceptionalism as the standard; to show interest in our differences, instead of pretending they don’t exist; to acknowledge the structural barriers and get to work on breaking them down.

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo is a migration researcher with the Institute of Security Studies, a rugby wife of nine years and mother to three children

​Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo

​Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo is a migration researcher with the Institute of Security Studies, a rugby wife of nine years and mother to three children Read more from ​Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo

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