Ambitious Kolisi has raised the bar

Siya Kolisi is a rare breed of athlete intent on using his status and celebrity to effect significant social change, writes JON CARDINELLI in a preview to our latest cover feature.

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As a rugby writer, you spend a lot of time speaking to players, coaches and administrators about myriad issues that influence the sport. It’s not often, however, that you find an athlete with the guts to shine a light on matters that transcend the game.

Rarer still are individuals who harness the power of celebrity to effect real change. Raising awareness via a social media message isn’t enough. The real heroes travel to the frontline in times of crisis and find a way to make the world a slightly better place.

When I set out to write the cover feature for the latest SA Rugby magazine, I had a fair idea about the Kolisi Foundation and its mission statement. I’d seen the posts on Twitter and Instagram, and I’d noted how intent the Kolisis were on helping those afflicted by poverty and gender-based violence.

Interviewing Siya and his wife Rachel about their case-to-case experiences evoked emotions of anger and despair. The raw details of those stories highlighted atrocities that are a reality for large parts of the South African population. While it was great to hear that some people still care enough to help, and inspiring to hear about the courage of the survivors, it got me thinking if the problem could indeed be tackled on a greater scale.

Siya and Rachel went out of their way to remind me that people in South Africa live with these horrors on a daily basis. Athletes like Siya, and other Springbok players involved in various initiatives around the country, have a crucial role to play in calling attention to important the issues and prompting hard and often uncomfortable conversations.

The spotlight is on Kolisi in the wake of the 2019 World Cup, with various companies and corporations looking to harness the power of his personal brand. Some people in the rugby industry have bemoaned the exposure he’s received since the Boks won the World Cup. I don’t understand that concern. Kolisi is using his platform and his foundation to help people in need, and ultimately to inspire others to follow his lead. He could not have harnessed the power he’s been granted for a nobler cause.

I first interviewed Kolisi in 2011. Even then, the teenager from the Eastern Cape had a strong sense of responsibility and a burning desire to serve and help, albeit on a smaller scale. As the years passed, he gained a greater understanding of the opportunity he had, not just as a rugby player but as an aspirational figure to the greater population of South Africa.

The Boks travelled to Europe in late 2017 and I had the chance to interview Kolisi before the fourth and final game against Wales in Cardiff. Again, what struck me in the conversation was his intent to try new things and to drive change in his home country.

At that stage, he was already the captain of a diverse and multicultural Stormers team. The Bok captaincy wasn’t on his radar just yet, but he was mindful of the impact he could have as a prominent figure across various communities. He talked at length about putting sport development structures in place and addressing serious issues. He openly wondered when he would get the chance to make his dream a reality.

I reminded Kolisi of that conversation in 2017 when I interviewed him for the latest edition of SA Rugby magazine. Back then, he was a man full of energy and ideas. What he lacked was the means and backing to realise his vision.

The Boks’ World Cup success in Japan has changed everything. Roc Nation recognised the potential in the South African captain when they watched him deliver a passionate speech after the final. The Kolisi Foundation has been up and running for several months and Siya and Rachel intend to use any exposure to help some of South Africa’s less fortunate citizens.

Some people still believe that politics don’t belong in sport. Some in South African rugby circles object to Kolisi using his newfound exposure to highlight racial injustice, gender-based violence and even poverty in the rural areas.

What were those critics doing when the Bok captain was pushing wheelbarrows of food into impoverished communities during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic? What were they doing when the Kolisi Foundation was using its limited resources to help survivors of rape and abuse?

What, in summation, have they done lately to make the world a better place? Why are they determined to attack people who are?

One gets the feeling that the criticism doesn’t bother the Kolisis and that 2020 has witnessed the start of a more ambitious campaign. While rugby remains a priority for Siya, and will demand his undivided attention when play resumes in South Africa next month, the need to inspire and indeed help the population in practical and meaningful ways will not be forgotten any time soon.

*An inspiring, exclusive interview with Kolisi features in the latest SA Rugby magazine, on sale from this weekend!

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