South Africa captain Siya Kolisi had a tough upbringing but wants to inspire others to succeed
Siya Kolisi’s journey from township to Test star
After guiding South Africa to their first World Cup final in 12 years, Siya Kolisi was asked where he was when the Springboks triumphed over England in 2007. He responded by saying he’d watched the match in a tavern because he didn’t have a television at home.
It’s a reminder that Kolisi – the first black player to captain South Africa at Test level – did not have a privileged upbringing, as he told Rugby World magazine in this interview a couple of years ago…
When he was young, Siya Kolisi’s favourite toy was a brick. His friends had toy cars but he would have as much fun, if not more, pushing his brick around in the Zwide township of Port Elizabeth (PE). These days he travels the world pushing in scrums but he never envisioned earning his living playing sport.
“I loved playing with that brick,” says the 28-year-old South Africa flanker. “I just enjoyed life when I was young and wanted to be happy with the things I had. I never dreamed of being a rugby player. All I wanted was to have a good life and make a good life for my family.”
Reflecting on his childhood, Kolisi insists he was given the most important things in life, “love and support”. He also uses the word “tough” frequently yet admits he didn’t realise it was so hard at the time; it was simply all he knew.
He was raised by his paternal grandmother and would wake not knowing if he would eat that day. He would go to school because he would get a meal there but had to stop attending when he was ten to look after his sick grandmother, who then died in his arms. Many of his friends fell into smoking and drinking.
“There weren’t a lot of people to look up to so you had to be strong,” he says. “Rugby was my way out.”
He first tried the sport aged seven. Most of his family played so it was natural that he would sign up for his local club in the township, African Bombers. Five years later his talent was spotted and he was offered a scholarship to Grey Junior School in PE and latterly the high school.
He “didn’t speak a word of English” when he first arrived but did a language exchange with one of his classmates, Nicholas Holton teaching him English and Kolisi teaching Holton Xhosa. The two are still firm friends – Kolisi’s son is named after him and Holton was best man at his wedding.
From school, Kolisi progressed through the rugby ranks to Western Province and then the Stormers before making his international debut against Scotland in 2013. He was named vice-captain for the Springboks in 2017 by Allister Coetzee and was one of his country’s standout performers in what was a poor season.
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He is acutely aware of how much his life has changed, saying: “My first goal was to get a meal at the end of the day. Now I set much higher goals. I want to be one of the best players in the Springbok team and one of the best players in the world.”
The back-rower’s ambitions don’t end on the field; he relishes his role-model status and wants to inspire others. While some sportsmen can feel burdened by the responsibility of setting an example, Kolisi embraces it.
“I don’t see rugby as a job – I love doing what I do and I want to inspire as many people as I can, especially those from the same background as me. It’s not about the pay cheque; I want to help people as much as I can. That’s why I’ve organised a new changing room at African Bombers. I like giving back. That’s my purpose in life and I use rugby as a platform.
“It’s vital people are an example for younger kids, show them how you can make it in South Africa so they don’t have to look elsewhere for role models, to America or other countries. No matter where you come from, if you put hard work in you can achieve.
“Kids in South Africa hopefully see people like me make it and give back to less fortunate people. I hope people get opportunities and I hope they don’t forget where they came from and give back. We should all work together.”
Kolisi, though, does not necessarily want children to follow his own route to sporting stardom. Rather than have to leave townships to get access to a better education, high-end coaches and so on, he would like to see that provided in those areas, to give opportunities to less fortunate children where they live and where their families are.
“If you take all those guys out of townships, who will kids look up to?” he asks, his reasoning spot-on.
He returns to Zwide when he can and it is on one such visit that he found his half-siblings. His mother died when he was 16 and his half-brother Liyema and half-sister Liphelo moved in with their dad. When he passed away they were taken in by social workers.
Kolisi spent seven years trying to find them and on one visit to the township with Holton in 2014 he was pointed to where they were staying. The reunion was emotional but he was clear in his desire to make them part of his family with wife Rachel and son Nicholas. He has now adopted them and they all live in Cape Town, with their daughter Keziah expanding the family further in 2017.
Being in conversation with Kolisi not only makes you wish more sportsmen used their profile for greater things but also forces you to question your own life and achievements. How can you better yourself? So it seems fitting to end with a piece of advice from the man who has done so much in his 28 years and will no doubt do more with the rest of his life.
“The most important thing is to work hard. I was running on talent for a while and those who worked harder than me were catching up and getting past me. No matter how talented you are, you still have to work hard.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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