/ 30 October 2023

The Boks’ real gift to South Africa is leadership

Gettyimages 1763324610 594x594
Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth pose with the Webb Ellis Cup during the South Africa Winners Portrait shoot after the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 29, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Today it feels really good to be a South African because the Springboks beat all the top rugby nations in the world to become Rugby World Champions for the fourth time. 

I do not think I can ever find the right words to say “thank you” enough to Siya Kolisi, Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and all the members of the team. I am saying “thank you” rather than “congratulations” because our country is going through a long, rough patch. Joyous moments such as this are so rare and emotional, and when one arrives in this way it goes very deep. 

And so I have been crying.

I shed a tear when the final whistle came, and again when Siya lifted the cup and the country erupted in joy. I also cried a little when I saw a clip of Siya sprinting all the way to the touchline to hug Cheslin Kolbe. Then I nearly wailed like a child when I watched a portion of the press conference where Siya talked about his team and the coaches, and the years and years it took to reach this level of performance. He spoke about how they cared for one another as human beings first, and then as professionals.

But this post is not just to say thank you to our heroes, but to explain why the Springboks and SA rugby give us a huge moment of reflection, and then to move forward with more purpose to build the country we all deserve.

First, winning matters. No political speech, however powerful the orator, can deliver the deep satisfaction and pride that comes from getting something you deserve. South Africans watched this team play very tough matches, make it to the final and secure a gritty victory. It is uplifting and inspiring to millions of people in ways that words cannot do.

I have for a long time felt that we no longer have a national culture of hunger for success, of winning in any area outside sport. The same fans of my team, Kaizer Chiefs, who will hound a failing coach out of his job such as it happened this month, will not be as passionate about the people who ruin the lives of millions of South Africans.

Yet, national intolerance of needless failure is so important. I am not a big rugby fan but I like watching the Springboks because they fight for every ball and inch. Even when they lose, I almost never doubt their willingness to proverbially die in battle. Although disappointed, my sense of loyalty remains strong because I am primarily proud of their fighting spirit, not just their victories.

Second, leadership matters. The most frequent comments I have seen and heard about our captain are about what an amazing leader and human being he is. The same is said about Rassie Erasmus, the coach. Beyond that, Siya named a few other players who take the initiative to lead even without formal roles, such as Handré Pollard. 

Mature leadership means the captain does not feel undermined when other people step forward to pull the team up and forward. In fact, it is a mark of good leadership when many more in the team decide to lead anyway for the sake of achieving the team’s common objectives. Oh, how I wish the same was true of politics, where the national impact is profound, but the self-absorption and egotism are on steroids.

Third, South Africa really can come right. I remember a time when there was just one player who was not white in the starting 15, the late Chester Williams, a left wing. Over time, it became generally accepted that black players could only play on the wing and backline, not anywhere else.

It was almost unthinkable to have a black front row, or flank. Yet, today the feared Bomb Squad has black players, and our captain is a blindside flanker. Our imagination of what is possible has expanded since 1995 when we won our first Rugby World Cup. Nicknames such as “Beast” and “Ox” are replicated by children all over the country.

We have come such a long way that we have almost forgotten the intense political fight for the team to no longer be called the Springboks in favour of the Protea. It was a divisive fight that the late former minister of sport, Steve Tshwete and Nelson Mandela handled with careful balance, and they have been proven right. The Springbok name has undergone a complete transformation from divisiveness to unity.

It proves that it is much less the talk of non-racialism that matters, but the effort we put in to deliver the fruits of that project. Rugby is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the makeup of the squad and starting 15 shows what happens when we put in the work to give effect to what we say we believe in.

Rassie Erasmus has almost as big a black fan club as Siya Kolisi because people can see he has put in the work, taken the risks of criticism from the “quota player” critics, and has been proven right. He is now a de facto honorary resident of every township and village where rugby matters. People can see he is genuine and therefore never question his selection of white players, or dropping a black player from the squad.

Fourth, the Springboks’ feat must cause us to question why we cannot be just as successful in cricket, rugby and athletics, among others. We must reflect on why we tolerate political and corporate failure of leadership when we have such a good example that success can be achieved even with imperfections if we choose success over ambivalence.

By far one of the most outstanding lessons for me, personally, has been that every centimetre gained, tackle and ankle tap matters, from the first minute to the last. Every member of the team matters, all the way to the person who prepares the team kit for the day, or the team physician. All of these people did their absolute best, and that is why today we are proud to be South African, and to be African. 

We love our captain Siyamthanda Kolisi because in his comments you can tell he sees them and does his best to recognise them publicly. His humility achieves what he himself does not covet, and that is for his name to be lifted higher and higher by the rest of us who watch his character in action. 

Finally, I understand there was a feeble political attempt on social media to undermine the Springboks efforts in the final. It failed because South Africans are not naïve. They know we have many problems and unresolved issues, but they will not forsake moments of progress that encourage us to redouble our efforts in those areas.

The role of leadership is not to destroy unity when it arises, but to use the few smidgens of unity we achieve to unite us behind solving the many difficult issues we still face. Therefore it is no longer the win that matters, that was last week and Saturday until we lifted the World Cup, from here onwards it is what leaders choose to do with it.

For me, I am more determined than ever that South Africa comes right, that every South African has the opportunity to succeed in life, and does. That needs those of us engaged in politics to learn every lesson from the Springbok victory, and then emulate their example. Hard work, consistency, humility and choosing the right and best people for roles are just some of those.

Songezo Zibi is the National Leader of Rise Mzansi