Rugby World Cup final: Siya Kolisi, South Africa’s first black captain & legacy of 1995


Kolisi was born one day before South Africa’s apartheid laws were officially repealed in 1991

You walk out in a Springbok jersey as a player and you feel history on your back and by your side.

You stand as South Africa’s captain in a World Cup final and the weight is greater across your shoulders and the ghosts crowd in all around.

Francois Pienaar hoisting the Webb-Ellis trophy at Ellis Park in 1995, Nelson Mandela alongside him in his own green number six jersey, happy like a kid who has just scored his first try. John Smit at the Stade de France in Paris 12 years on, left hand around the old gold pot, right hand linked with Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki.

Twelve years more have passed. Now it is the turn of Siya Kolisi to walk that path. The first black man to captain the Springboks, a kid from nowhere who hopes to go where none have gone before.

Rugby matters in many places around the world, but only in South Africa can it change the nation around it. Captains and presidents, politics and power, new dreams and old scars.

“It was iconic when Francois lifted the World Cup with Madiba, and it was amazing to be able to do it myself with Thabo,” says Smit.

“But if Siya touches that trophy on Saturday… I tell you, it will be a far greater moment than 1995. Far greater. It would change the trajectory of our country.”

That Kolisi has made it this far is a story of stoicism and self-belief. Born to teenage parents in the poor township of Zwide, just outside Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape, he was brought up by his grandmother, who cleaned kitchens to make ends meet.

Bed was a pile of cushions on the living-room floor. Rugby was on dirt fields. When he went to his first provincial trials he played in boxer shorts, because he had no other kit.

His father Fezakel was a centre, his grandfather a player of pace too. Aged 12, the young Kolisi was spotted by Andrew Hayidakis, a coach at the exclusive private school Grey, and offered a full scholarship.

When you are from Zwide you step into this other world when the chance comes, but you never leave your old life behind. Kolisi’s mother died when he was 15, his grandmother shortly afterwards. When Smit’s team was beating England in that World Cup final of 2007, the 16-year-old Kolisi was watching it in a township tavern because there was no television at home.

South Africa beat England 15-6 in the 2007 World Cup in Paris

“His story is unique,” Hanyani Shimange, former Springboks prop, told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast.

“Previous generations of black rugby players were not given the same opportunities, purely because of South Africa’s laws. He’s living the dream of people who weren’t given the same opportunities as him.

“He’s grabbed those opportunities. He’s a good man, a humble individual.

“He’s got a lot of time for people, probably too much time in some instances. But he’s the same Siya he was six years ago. He loves rugby, and the team loves him.”

Kolisi began at school as a small but mobile flanker, good with the ball in hand, learning to be smarter than the stronger kids around him. When a growth spurt kicked in and he got big there was power to go with the finesse.

As a loose forward he is a significant asset to a Springbok team that at this World Cup has battled through to the final rather than dazzled. Saturday will bring his 50th cap, and his 20th as captain. His impact is far greater than simply what he does on the pitch because of all that has come before.

“I do not care how the Springboks team does. It is not a reflection of the nation. It is not our team. I support the All Blacks instead. We don’t support the national team, because it is a white South African team. It is not a true South African team.”

That was Zola Ntlokoma, secretary of Soweto Rugby Club, talking to me before England played South Africa at Twickenham five years ago. It was not an uncommon view, because for all the iconography and sweet symmetry of 1995, its wider effect quickly leached away.

Integration of black players crawled along rather than accelerated. The World Cup win gave the impression that little more needed doing, and so little was.

When the Springboks triumphed in Johannesburg 24 years ago there was just one black player, Chester Williams, in the starting XV. By the time of their second World Cup win in 2007, there were still only two.

In some corners of South African life, the story of 1995 feels old and frayed. When Williams wrote his autobiography he accused fellow winger James Small of using racially abusive language towards him in a domestic cup match after that World Cup win. Small, who said he had “no independent recollection of the incident”,