Siya Kolisi’s nickname ‘Captain Fantastic’ is a testament to his incredible journey from township to the top of the rugby world, and how he continues to inspire a nation.
BY SIMON BORCHARDT | July 2023
Siya Kolisi wrote himself into sporting history when he captained the Springboks to 2019 Rugby World Cup glory in Japan, but he may end up being remembered as much for what he achieved off the field as he did on it.
The 31-year-old’s story is worth retelling again and again, not just to inspire others from impoverished areas but to explain the work he and his wife Rachel are doing through the Kolisi Foundation.
Kolisi was born in Zwide, a township outside Port Elizebeth (now Gqeberha) on 16 June 1991, the last day of apartheid. Fittingly, in 1994, 16 June became Youth Day, which commemorates the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
Siya’s mother Phakama and father Fezakele were 18 and 15 years old respectively when he came into the world. Fezakele had to travel far for work as a painter, so Siya was raised by his paternal grandmother, who he affectionately called ‘Aunty’.
The Kolisi family lived in a small house that had a kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms, along with six or seven other people (sometimes more). As Siya recalled in his best-selling autobiography, Rise, water would seep up through the kitchen floor when it rained, while his bed consisted of a few pillows on the floor, and he had to step over several people when going outside to use the long-drop toilet.
When Siya’s grandmother was working, there was usually enough for him and her to eat, but when she later lost her job and then became too old to work, they often went hungry. Siya got one basic meal a day at Emsengeni Primary, but during school holidays there were times he had to settle for a teaspoon of sugar or drink lots of water to trick his stomach into feeling full.
“Hunger is a huge issue for me because I grew up with it,” Kolisi tells Post Matric. “I could feel my intestines twisting in the middle of the night, and my grandmother would give me sugar water to help settle them down.”
Having experienced real hunger first-hand, it’s no surprise that food security is one of the Kolisi Foundation’s three strategic focus areas. “Food is a fundamental right,” he says. “The Foundation has a more holistic approach to fighting hunger. We work with some remarkable people on our sustainable community projects, which empower communities to support themselves.”
Kolisi, aged eight or nine, would earn a bit of money by selling alcohol and vegetables on the street, and he also made bricks to sell. One of those bricks became his ‘car’, as there was no money for toys. When Siya didn’t have shoes for school, he wore his grandmother’s and was teased by class mates for months.
Kolisi also suffered real trauma while growing up in the township. He was in the kitchen with his beloved grandmother when she collapsed and died. And when he was 15, his mother went to sleep and never woke up again. Siya also witnessed terrible township violence, which included his mother and other women in his family being beaten up by men, his father crying and screaming when he found himself on the receiving end of a fight, and a man with new shoes being stoned to death after a mob incorrectly assumed he’d either stolen them or bought them with gangster money.
Gender-based violence affected Siya the most. As a result, he has been very outspoken about it and used the Kolisi Foundation to help tackle it in South Africa. “We must realise that gender-based violence is not a women’s issue, it is a man’s issue,” he says. “I constantly emphasise the need for men to start taking a stand against each other in terms of how they treat and conduct themselves towards women in the workplace, at home, at family gatherings, and in general. I couldn’t make a difference for my mom or my ‘aunty’, but now I have a voice. People will listen to us [sportsmen] when they might not listen to politicians. If we educate our sons, we won’t have to protect our daughters.”
In the absence of his grandmother, a young Kolisi began hanging out with older kids and doing what they did – drinking, smoking weed and sniffing petrol. He was heading down a path that would lead to a life of crime, and perhaps death, too.
It was rugby that saved him. Siya began playing for the club closest to his home, the African Bombers, who were based at the Dan Qeqe Stadium. There he found a father figure in coach Eric Songwiqi. “Coach Eric helped to develop my rugby skills and instil a high level of discipline that moulded me into the man and leader I am today,” recalls Kolisi, who was selected to play for Eastern Province at an U12 provincial tournament in Mossel Bay.
Unbeknownst to him, it was also an unofficial trial for a bursary at Grey Junior and Grey High schools. When the Grey teacher who had been scouting for talent approached Songwiqi during the tournament to discuss two EP players who had caught his eye, ‘Coach Eric’ insisted the school take Kolisi, too.
If rugby saved Siya’s life, the full scholarship – which covered one year at Grey Junior and five years at Grey High – changed it forever. As Kolisi pointed out in his book, while the school was just 15 minutes from Zwide, it may as well have been on a different planet. For the first time, he had a proper bed, socks and, most importantly, enough food to eat.
“I didn’t know where my next meal would come from until I showed up at Grey’s hostel as a recipient of a Vincent Mai bursary. Vincent is a fellow Grey old boy and has invested in hundreds of South African kids through bursaries, without ever meeting most of them. I was one of those kids. Without the opportunity to attend Grey, there is no way I’d be where Iam today. Vincent sowed into my life without ever knowing what would come from it, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
However, the initial transition was tough for Kolisi, who couldn’t speak a word of English when he arrived at Grey. Fortunately, he made a friend for life in Nicholas Holton. “It was extremely daunting to be at a school with more than 160 years of tradition and an unfamiliar hostel. But Nicholas taught me English – I taught him isiXhosa in return – and I soon settled in academically at the school and found a sense of belonging there. Nicholas remains one of my oldest friends. He was my best man at my wedding and I named my son after him.”
Playing rugby at Grey was also a completely different experience for Kolisi. “I was used to fields that were sparsely covered in dry, brown grass and thorns,” he says. “So, I was astonished when tackled on the lush, green grass of my new school’s fields!”
It soon became evident that Siya had something special. The loose forward captained Eastern Province at the U16 Grant Khomo Week, and in his Grade 11 and 12 years, he played for the Grey first team, the EP U18 Craven Week team and SA Schools. Such was his impact as a player at Grey High, that its main rugby field was last year renamed as the Kolisi Field.
By Grade 11, Kolisi knew what he wanted to do after school – play professional rugby. In his book, he recounts the conversation he had with his accountancy teacher after asking if he could drop the subject so he could focus on others. “Accountancy’s a useful skill,” the teacher replied. “You’ll need it in later life.”“Not in the career I’m going to have,” said Siya. “What’s that, then?” “I’m going to be a Springbok.” “Siya Kolisi,” the teacher said after a long pause and a hard stare. “You are a very arrogant man.”
However, while Kolisi was never going to be an accountant, he did realise the importance of getting a good education, which is why education and sport development is the third strategic focus area of his Foundation.
“Education provides potential employment and improves one’s access to opportunities,” he says. “I urge all kids to listen to their parents and teachers. Do your homework, stay focused and put in the time and effort to get an education.”
Kolisi got his education, before joining Western Province, the team he most wanted to play for, in Cape Town. He made his senior debut for WP in the 2011 Vodacom Cup and played in the Currie Cup later that year. In 2012, Siya made a successful step-up to Super Rugby with the Stormers, which was followed by Springbok selection in 2013.
The day before his 22nd birthday, Kolisi came off the bench as an injury replacement in the fifth minute of the Test against Scotland at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit and went on to earn the Man of the Match award.
Kolisi would make two appearances for the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup in England and while his opportunities at international level were also limited in 2016, the high esteem in which he was held in Cape Town saw him named Stormers captain ahead of the 2017 season.
That coincided with a tumultuous two-year period in South African rugby that saw Rassie Erasmus appointed Springbok head coach in February 2018, and in late May, he announced that Siya Kolisi would be his captain.
In a spine-tingling moment on 9 June 2018, Kolisi became the Springboks’ first black African Test captain when he led them on to the field for their clash against England at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The match was won 42-39 and, 512 days later, the Boks beat the same opponents in the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama, 32-12, to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time.
The reception Kolisi’s men received during their trophy tour around the country showed just how much it meant to millions of South Africans, black and white.
Siya’s story was far from finished, though. The Covid-19 pandemic sidelined the world champions for 20 months and severely disrupted their preparations for the series against the British & Irish Lions in 2021. But with Kolisi producing his best rugby yet in the green and gold, the Boks won an epic series (played behind closed doors) 2-1 to underline their status as the world’s No 1-ranked team. While they have since slipped to fourth in the rankings, South Africa will travel to France later this year for the 2023 global showpiece quietly confident of defending their World Cup title.
The Boks’ chances of doing so will be significantly boosted if their captain recovers from a knee injury he suffered while playing for the Sharks in April. Kolisi was his usual positive self after undergoing surgery – ‘the op went well, the hard work starts now,’ he said on social media – and you’d expect him to rise to this latest challenge.
The Kolisi family will start a new chapter in their lives when Siya joins French Top 14 club Racing 92 after the World Cup, but while South Africa will be out of sight, it certainly won’t be out of mind. “While living in France, Rachel and I will keep working tirelessly on fundraising efforts and establishing new partnerships for the Foundation,” says Siya. “I am very fortunate to earn a living by doing what I love, and doing it with my mates. But I will never be OK until we are all OK, and this is what drives the work our Foundation does.”
THE KOLISI FOUNDATION
The night before the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama, Siya and his wife Rachel sat in the lobby of the Springboks’ hotel and conceptualised the Kolisi Foundation. With a vision to change narratives of inequality in South Africa, they settled on three strategic focus areas – food security, gender- based violence, and education and sport development.
The Foundation was officially launched on 4 April 2020, during South Africa’s first Covid-19 lockdown, with the slogan “Remember the one, one by one”.
“Just focus on the one heart, the one person, and the one life that you are changing,” Rachel explains. “By remembering the one, one by one, we will impact the nation.”
The Foundation has achieved a lot over the past three years. Its Siyaphakama Zwide education and sports development project – named after Siya and his mother Phakama (‘siyaphakama’ means ‘we are rising’ in isiXhosa) – seeks to address challenges facing township youth by creating a tailor-made programme to address physical education, nutrition, academic education, life skills and youth employment.
The Foundation’s Mandela Day campaign has raised more than R219 000 for Lungisa Haai, also known as ‘Mama Lungi’, who runs five community kitchens in Gugulethu, Summer Greens, Khayelitsha, Dunoon and Joe Slovo. Her kitchens now feed more than 1 000 children and elderly people every day. The Foundation teamed up with the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children to tackle gender-based violence. Together, they created a facility that provides a supportive and healing space for mothers and children, who can spend quality time together, while benefiting from counselling, therapy reflection, reading and journaling. The space was named after a gender-based violence survivor, Nikita Lewis.
There’s also the Kolisi Connect initiative, which brings different organisations together once a month to connect, share and engage with each other.
For more information, visit https:// kolisifoundation.org