Siya Kolisi: South Africa’s bear and standard bearer
Siyamthanda ‘Siya’ Kolisi was born on 16 June 1991 – one day before the repeal of apartheid in South Africa.
Almost as if fate intervened to mark him out as a special figure in his country’s sporting and political landscape.
But you would never have guessed it from the young man’s humble beginnings.
This was a kid from the township of Zwide in the Eastern Cape. Few success stories come out of there, and fewer still go on to represent the Springboks.
Kolisi’s mother was 16 when he was born and he was raised by his grandmother. He slept on the floor. At the age of 12, his grandmother died in his arms; his mother died in his teens.
This is a man who has faced adversity all his life, and overcome the odds each time.
The scholarship to Grey High School – whose alumni include sporting stars like Graeme Pollock and Mike Catt – was undoubtedly the boost the flanker needed.
Not all get such opportunities. The young Kolisi did and had the drive to make the most of it.
First came the breakthrough for the Stormers, then not long after a Springbok debut back in 2013.
A bit-part figure initially, it was only in 2018 that Kolisi nailed his spot down and with it came the captaincy.
That was one of Rassie Erasmus’ first calls when he took over as coach. It has proven to be his best one.
Now, Kolisi is the first black captain of the Springboks and the man who led the Rainbow nation to their third World Cup crown in Yokohama last year.
The similarities to that iconic 1995 win, with Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela lifting the Webb Ellis Cup together, were hard to ignore.
Kolisi was joined on the winner’s podium by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who was wearing a Springboks jersey with No.6 on the back — the number worn by the captain.
It evoked memories of Mandela – the country’s president at the time – wearing the No. 6 jersey as he handed the World Cup trophy to captain and backrower Pienaar.
All this on Kolisi’s 50th cap for his country. There was something written in the stars about that Saturday night.
But to call Kolisi a man of fate is to demean his hard work to get to the summit.
The man who calls himself ‘Siya Kolisi the Bear’ on social media is the standard bearer for this Springbok side for a reason.
As Erasmus reflected after the final: “We had a good chat when we did the jersey presentation for the 50th Test match.
“It is easy to talk about going through hard times and struggling to get opportunities but it is tough when there are days when you didn’t have food or couldn’t go to school or didn’t have shoes to wear.
“When you sit down and think about it, there was a stage when Siya didn’t have food to eat and, yes, that is the captain and he led South Africa to hold this Cup and that is what Siya is.”
Kolisi has never forgotten where he comes from either.
Few can unite a country like this man can, and the British & Irish Lions will be facing a figurehead next summer.
Kolisi still returns to the townships, he gave iPads to every kid at his old primary school.
He has reunited with his father Fezakel too, and become his half-brother and sister’s legal guardian in the process.
Fezakel faced a race against time to reach Japan and watch his son lead South Africa out in Yokohama.
The father didn’t have a passport and had never left his homeland prior to that weekend, meaning he required the support of South Africa’s team management to help him fast-track the necessary documents in time to fly to Japan ahead of the game.
And there he was in the stands, watching his son make history and move a nation.
You can get a feeling for the sort of man Kolisi is from the first words he uttered after the final whistle.
“Since I have been alive, I have never seen South Africa like this,” said the flanker.
“With all the challenges we have, the coach said to us that we are not playing for ourselves any more, we are playing for the people back home – that is what we wanted to do today.
“We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people – there were screens there – and people in the rural areas. Thank you so much, we appreciate the support. We love you South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”
But to be in the stadium and to see the way he comforted Kyle Sinckler, the way he hugged his two children and wife Rachel, was to witness not just a great rugby player but a great man.