With the same determination displayed in leading the Boks to World Cup success, Siya Kolisi is now tackling pivotal off-field issues, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
What would you do if you had the power to change the world? Siya and Rachel Kolisi considered this question as they sat outside their hotel room in Tokyo on 3 November 2019. Instead of reflecting on the Springboks’ World Cup success, they discussed how they could use the exposure to effect significant social change.
‘I travelled to Japan believing that South Africa would win the World Cup,’ Siya tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We were well aware of the problems in our country and we tried to use that as motivation to succeed. I knew what winning the World Cup could do for South Africa. What’s more, I knew what it could do for the type of work I’m passionate about.’
Rachel remembers putting the couple’s children to sleep the day after the World Cup final and joining Siya in the hotel corridor. A major celebration awaited the Springboks upon their return to South Africa, as well as a week-long trophy tour. At that point, however, the Kolisis felt that they had more profound matters to explore.
‘We made a list of everything that we wanted to change in South Africa. Gender-based violence, equality for youth, sports and skills development … we were determined to tackle the big issues,’ says Rachel. ‘We started to look at what it would take to make all of that possible. We realised how important it was to get going. It’s great to be in the spotlight after winning a World Cup, but that doesn’t last forever. Siya will have that influence for only a limited time.’
The trophy tour was a resounding success. Thousands of fans turned out in Gauteng, Durban, the Eastern Cape and Cape Town to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Siya delivered a rousing speech outside Cape Town City Hall, remarking on the fact that people from all races and walks of life had gathered to celebrate the World Cup success.
That wasn’t the end of the story, though, but the beginning. That World Cup campaign and the manner in which the Boks conducted themselves in the aftermath inspired people around the globe. High-profile celebrities like actor Matthew McConaughey and talk-show host Trevor Noah went out of their way to praise Siya and the Boks after hearing the captain’s heartfelt speech. Then Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by American rapper Jay-Z, came calling with a game-changing proposition.
‘Jay-Z and many others at Roc Nation come from similar backgrounds,’ Siya explains. ‘They recognised that everything was against me when I was youngster growing up in the township. They wanted to amplify my story and make me an icon. They felt that the way I spoke about hardship was very relevant, and not just to South Africans but to those in similar situations around the world.
‘When I met Roc Nation CEO Michael Yormark I told him that I want to inspire kids and I want to make a real change. Ultimately, I don’t want kids to go through what I went through when I was younger. In a sense, I’m tired of being celebrated because I suffered and still managed to make it. No kid should have to face that kind of challenge. I asked Roc Nation, can they help me with that, not just in South Africa but around the world? They told me they were in.’
Siya and Rachel had planned to launch the Kolisi Foundation in July this year. Then the Covid-19 crisis hit and their quest to help those in need was fast-tracked.
This is not a new idea. Three years ago, Siya told SA Rugby magazine about his ambition to address the inequalities in South Africa and to help those in need. Back then, he’d just been made Stormers captain and was starting to feature regularly in the national team. Now has the means and the backing to fulfil his vision.
‘Rachel and I decided, you know what, we have the platform to make a difference. Rugby has helped us. Winning the World Cup has helped us. And when I say “us” I mean everyone who has been part of the journey. Everybody from the coaches to the other players to the supporters who willed us over the line in Japan. We are now in this position to make a difference. I’m certainly not suggesting that I got to this position all on my own, merely that I can use my own platform to make a change.
‘There is some pressure involved in this kind of work,’ he adds. ‘You have to give your absolute best in everything you do, because you’re trying to make a difference in someone else’s life. You’re going out there and having the hard conversations. You’re trying to change people’s minds about certain issues.’
Siya’s social media accounts as well as those of the Kolisi Foundation have detailed the journey from the beginning. The images and videos have painted a bleak and often heart-wrenching picture of the situation in South Africa’s townships and rural areas.
‘It’s been an eye-opener,’ says Rachel. ‘Even outside the Covid-19 crisis, this is the reality for a lot of people. When we’ve gone to help at soup kitchens or to drop off food at shelters, they’ve told us that they are grateful for the coronavirus. They tell us that this is the most help that they’ve ever received.’
Rachel speaks about several of the foundation’s projects that are close to her heart. Grace for Grace, an informal support centre for victims of gender-based violence that is run by a community member of the same name, has already raised R250 000 thanks to the Kolisis. And yet, as Rachel explains, more should be done to help women in need.
‘The president addressed the nation one evening and said that men have declared war on our women. But that’s all he said. I was so upset. It’s way beyond that.
‘That same day, I got a message from someone who had been raped. None of the shelters in Cape Town could take her in because of the Covid-19 situation. When you get a message like that, it hits you hard.
‘The good news is that we were able to help her. Grace lives in a small three-room dwelling and she was able to take her in. Before our involvement, Grace had no support at all. I managed to raise some funds to help with costs, but the challenges are ongoing as she is renting the place.’
Siya and Rachel joined a march in Cape Town recently to show their support for the fight against gender-based violence. Both hope that more will join the cause and that real progress will be made soon.
‘I marched against GBV last year,’ Rachel says angrily. ‘I was quite disappointed that I had to go back and do so again. We need our leaders to take action on this issue. It’s heart-breaking to see that so many women in this country continue to be abused. It’s great to see a man like Siya standing up, not just because he’s my husband, but because he’s a man who has some influence. It sets an example. We need more men to lift their hands and say that they will fight for this cause.’
Siya points out that he’s in a position to make a difference on various levels, whether he’s challenging a teammate or educating his son.
‘I used to be the quiet guy in the corner,’ he says. ‘I’ve never spoken out about this kind of stuff. I’ve got to a place now, however, where I believe you have to stand up and say something. Those who don’t are almost saying that GBV is OK.
‘It’s not up to women to take up this fight alone. We’ve got to admit that men are the problem and we’ve got to look at how we can be better. Education is so important. There are a lot of things that we need to unlearn in terms of how we treat women and even how we speak to women. I’m talking about education at home as well as at school. Nobody told me that it was wrong when I was younger. When I saw the abuse, in my community and even in my own home when I was a boy, there was no one to say, “This is fundamentally wrong”.
‘Even on the field, the coach should say, look, this is not who we are. This is not how we treat women. I have to go around to my circle of friends and take people on. I’ve got to tell them that they can’t treat women this way because that is not what I’m about. It’s easier to tell people you don’t know what you think. It’s a lot harder to take on people you know. But these are the hard conversations we have to have if we are going to make real changes. I’ve got to make it clear that I can’t be mates with anyone who treats women that way.
‘I’ve also been hard on my son Nicholas  about this,’ Siya continues. ‘They say you should educate your son rather than protect your daughter. I’ve almost been too hard on him but I want him to realise how important this is. If I educate him, I won’t have to protect my daughter. If that’s happening on a bigger scale, we can feel safer about our daughters as a community. If we are all educated, we will make better choices in life.’
The mission of the Kolisi Foundation is wide-ranging, aiming to help individuals and groups that are experiencing various challenges. Bryan is a young man who was shot in the head when he was three years old. Now 17 and bed-ridden, he lives in a small house with his mother, who was also injured in the same gang shooting. The Kolisis have raised money to improve Bryan’s living conditions and to help with the costs of basic needs, like food.
‘We’ve renovated his house,’ says Rachel. ‘The milk they feed him through a tube costs R200 and lasts for two days. His mother gets a grant of R1800 per month. We’re hoping to help them further, to get Bryan a wheelchair so he can get out of the house more. It’s been months since he’s been able to do that.’
It’s hard to listen to Siya and Rachel’s stories without becoming angry or despondent. What kind of emotional toll does it take on those who interact with people such as Grace and Bryan on a daily basis, those who are at the coalface of a crisis that predates Covid-19?
Siya doesn’t hesitate to respond. ‘It hurts,’ he says. ‘I went out to Limpopo to drop off some food and I was shocked by how people were living. Even now, in 2020, people are sharing drinking water with animals. The kids are using that water to wash. I saw a lady go to the same source to get water for cooking. She was carrying a baby on her back. My heart was broken.
‘I went to the North West. There are no buildings or facilities. I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of stuff through the township. There is absolutely nothing happening, and ultimately nothing for kids to enjoy or aspire to. It made me think, what are we doing as a nation? How are we letting this happen?
‘I think more people can help,’ he says emphatically. ‘People need to go out into the communities more and speak to those who are struggling. When they see how some are living, that will spark something inside. That will encourage a sense of responsibility. This pandemic is terrible, but it’s also an opportunity for everyone to see what kind of difference they can make in this world.’
How does one tackle a job this big? Rachel says it’s important to help as many people as possible, but to simultaneously acknowledge that different individuals are experiencing different challenges.
‘We gets lost of social media messages from people who have lost their job and don’t have food,’ she says. ‘We organise food vouchers for those individuals. The slogan for the foundation is “Remember the One, One By One”. We carry that close to our hearts, as it reminds us that every person matters no matter their situation. We want to help those people in really desperate situations, but we also want to help those with problems that may not be as bad by comparison.’
Siya has made a complete recovery from the serious knee injury that sidelined him earlier this year. Given the opportunity, he will strive to regain his form in the coming matches and be at his best when the British & Irish Lions tour in July 2021.
He will not forget about the foundation and its quest to change South Africa for the better in the short and long term. Some professional athletes might view a task as big as this as a distraction. Siya, however, continues to draw energy from the individuals who face these challenges.
‘I see it as my responsibility to get stuck in and help, but also to encourage others to do more. We need to get rid of this mindset that we are just rugby players. We can be so much more. The celebrities in South Africa can do so much more. Any member of the public could chip in with an extra can of food or two. You don’t have to have struggled in your life to recognise the crisis, or to want to help. We’re all human beings and we need to take better care of one another.’
Does he feel that this experience has made him a better captain? It may seem a trivial question in the grand scheme of things, but Siya may well take what he’s learned in recent months and transfer it to the rugby pitch.
‘I’ve learned so much from Rassie Erasmus in terms of how to get the best out of my teammates. I’ve picked up so much from the way he speaks and the way he goes about things. He gave us a plan and he made us believe it. We came together in pursuit of one goal and we won the World Cup.
‘I’ve grown so much off the field. Again, I have to make it clear that it’s not about me. Some people ask me how I stay humble. It’s because I believe I’m doing God’s work. I also have good people around me who keep me in check. You’re never bigger than the game. You’re never bigger the team. There are always other people who need your help. There is always a job to do.’
It’s an attitude that will go a long way toward making South Africa a better place.
End note: The Kolisi Foundation initiatives and projects can be followed on social media, while to donate, visit www.kolisifoundation.org
SIYA’S STIRRING BLACK LIVES MATTER MESSAGE
‘I’ve been observing and listening,’ Siya Kolisi said in a heartfelt video posted to Instagram after Mandela Day. ‘I’ve felt like my life hasn’t mattered since I was a little kid growing up in the townships. My mentality was to survive from when I was a baby.’
Kolisi recalled how he did odd jobs to support his family and how he often went days without food. At that stage, he wasn’t dreaming about a career in professional rugby. His mindset changed when got the opportunity to attend Grey High School.
‘I had to learn English and adapt to a whole new culture. Only one or two people wanted to understand a bit more about my own culture. My friend Nicholas Holton came with me to the township and saw how different it was for the people living there.
‘I think that a lot of people need to step out of their bubble and go out into the communities. They will understand why so many others are saying that their lives don’t matter.’
Kolisi said that he didn’t feel valued during the early days of his rugby career. It was only when Rassie Erasmus returned in 2018, and pushed to change the environment as well as the makeup of the national team that the black players felt like they belonged.
‘That campaign was called “Stronger Together” and we truly lived that as players. That’s what we striving for around the country. If my suffering and my pain doesn’t affect you, we’re not stronger together. Until that goes hand in hand, we haven’t got there. When we are marching, and we don’t have other races marching with us, we don’t feel like our lives matter. Black lives matter.
‘The time to be silent is gone,’ he added. ‘I will speak up, even it costs me my place. So many people have fought and died for this. We must be the generation that makes the change.’
KOLISI JOINS UNITED NATIONS RANKS
During the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that Springbok captain Siya Kolisi will serve as a global advocate for the Spotlight Initiative — the global partnership between the European Union and the United Nations tasked with eliminating all forms of violence against women by 2030.
‘Gender inequality harms everyone because it prevents us from benefiting from the intelligence and experience of all of humanity,’ said Guterres. ‘I am pleased to announce that South Africa’s Siya Kolisi is our new global champion for the United Nations European Union Spotlight Initiative, engaging other men in fighting the global scourge of violence against women and girls.’
Kolisi’s partnership with Spotlight Initiative will include activities that raise awareness of violence against women and girls, and the role men must play in ending violence for good. It comes at a time when violence against women and girls is spiking globally in response to lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19.
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!