From the vault: Mapimpi’s inspiring journey

As we wrap up our coverage of the Springboks’ World Cup anniversary, SA Rugby magazine brings you a selection of top features, this time focusing on Makazole Mapimpi.

Of all things, Makazole Mapimpi’s WhatsApp profile picture speaks volumes. The image is of a closed fist, accompanied by the words ‘Never Give Up’, written in capital letters.

Indeed, there can be few other World Cup-winning Springboks who have better embodied such a sentiment. Mapimpi’s story, after all, is one of triumph and inspiration against all the odds.

Hailing from humble beginnings, the Springbok superstar grew up with few worldly possessions or luxuries and, as he shared in an exclusive interview with SA Rugby magazine, he also endured some horrific incidents that have driven his decision to launch a campaign against gender-based violence.

As a child, there were times when Mapimpi wasn’t sure where his next meal would come from, or if he would have a roof over his head. The death of his mother, sister and brother at an early age all compounded the hardship of an underprivileged upbringing.

Yet, the man who hails from Moni village in the heart of the Eastern Cape has always been a fighter. A fighter who has refused to be defined, or daunted by the prospect of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and finding a way to make it to the top.

This fighting spirit was evident during Mapimpi’s days as a largely unknown entity campaigning for the Border Bulldogs in the lower echelons of SA rugby. It was also abundantly apparent when, at the age of 26, Mapimpi finally found his way into a team that afforded him the opportunity to make a long-awaited Super Rugby debut.

Furthermore, it was a character trait especially important when he packed his bags to move from the Kings to the Cheetahs and then to the Sharks. Often faced with unfamiliar surroundings and at times a language barrier, Mapimpi simply ‘never gave up’.

And when he finally broke through to the Springbok set-up and was tasked with making considerable improvements to his aerial abilities under the high ball, the determined wing once again rose to the challenge.

Mapimpi’s story is so diverse, and filled with so many twists and turns, it’s difficult to know where to begin. When asked if he can believe how much has changed in the space of a few short years  after all, he was playing club rugby in Mdantsane as recently as 2013 – Mapimpi offers a wry chuckle.

‘When I was a youngster playing rugby in the Eastern Cape, I never thought it would be possible to play for the Springboks. I was just playing club rugby for fun, and was thinking of ways to find work. When I was playing for Border, quite often I wasn’t even playing on the wing, but fortunately that led to the opportunity to play for the Kings and in Super Rugby.

‘It was during this time that someone reminded me that when you’re playing Super Rugby, it’s just one step away from the next level of international rugby. When I thought of it like that I started to see things differently, and I realised that I should never give up on that dream. I’m really grateful for the opportunities I’ve received along the way.’

Those ‘opportunities’ have snowballed since Mapimpi’s Springbok debut in 2018 – which came just a few weeks before his 28th birthday. At international level, he has scored 14 tries in as many Tests, with that tally of course including his historic try against England that saw him become the first South African to score a try in a World Cup final.

In a world that has changed significantly since that magical night in Yokohama, Mapimpi has signed a contract extension at the Sharks, but will also be taking up a short stint in Japan as soon as it’s possible to travel. He will return to his Durban-based franchise in April 2021, where he is committed through to 2023.

‘I couldn’t just turn my back on the Sharks; I think that was the main thing,’ he says when asked about opting against accepting a more permanent offer in Japan. It was to be a lucrative one-year deal, but a compromise was found that ultimately enables the sought-after wing to enjoy a ‘sabbatical’ of sorts before heading back to the Shark Tank.

‘I didn’t want to rush into making any quick decision, or to not consider what the best option would be for me beyond that,’ he says. ‘So I spoke to those close to me and discussed things with the Sharks and CEO Eduard Coetzee, and I’m very happy with the way things turned out.

‘There’s a good feeling at the Sharks right now,’ Mapimpi adds. ‘We were playing with a lot of enjoyment and freedom before Super Rugby was suspended. But this time away from the game has also allowed us an opportunity to think about subjects a little differently, and to focus on things that we perhaps wouldn’t have had as much time for in the past.’

It’s this answer that sees our conversation segue to a subject that is extremely close to Mapimpi’s heart. An issue that President Cyril Ramaphosa has described as South Africa’s ‘second pandemic’: gender-based violence.

On Mandela Day earlier this year, Mapimpi launched his #Mapimpi67 campaign aimed at raising awareness about the need to eradicate GBV.

‘Gender-based violence is something I’ve experienced first hand in my community and it’s happened to friends and family,’ he says. ‘It’s something that also affected me deeply because when I was growing up there was no senior male role model in my family, and I didn’t have the power to do anything to stop what was happening.

‘Some boys grow up to become men who think that abusing women and children is normal, but I am now in a position where I want to use my voice to tell everyone how wrong it is. I’m calling on all men to unite against gender-based violence and to play their part in stopping what is happening throughout our society.’

The GBV scourge is personal to Mapimpi on many levels. He has poignantly shared the tragic story of how a close member of his community – who played a big part in his upbringing – was raped years ago. Mapimpi adds: ‘She was never the same after that.’

So when teenager Uyinene Mrwetyana was brutally raped and murdered in Cape Town last year, Mapimpi was moved to action. Playing in a World Cup warm-up match against Japan at the time, the wing revealed a wrist strapping that read ‘Nene RIP’ as he added his voice to the emotional movement calling for change in the way women are treated in this country.

‘I could feel the pain of her family because I knew what this felt like,’ he shares. ‘I didn’t write her name on my wrist for attention. I just wanted to show that we were aware of what was going on back home, and that this tragedy affects all of us.’

Mzwandile Stick, who hails from the Eastern Cape and who has worked closely with Mapimpi, is someone who quickly warms to the subject when discussing the progression of the former Border player.

‘A lot of players have different story lines to tell, but the most unique thing about Makazole’s journey is how just a few years ago he was playing for the Border Bulldogs. But once he had the opportunity to play for the Kings in Super Rugby, he never looked back. When things are tough, only the best make it through.

‘I always try explain to people what it’s like in the rural areas; some kids have to walk more than 10kms just to go to school. Those are the challenges that are faced at a young age, but Makazole saw a way to improve his life and to make something of himself through rugby.

‘It’s an inspiration for other young kids to know that no matter how difficult things can be, if you’ve got goals and know what you want to achieve, it can be done. As soon as Makazole got his chance, he was ready for it and made the most of it.’

Since his breakthrough on to the Vodacom Super Rugby and international arena, Stick has proudly marvelled at Mapimpi’s determination to master his craft – evolving into a well-rounded, world-class wing. Moreover, the manner in which he has found his voice to address social injustices stands out beyond any on-field achievement.

‘As a human being, Makazole is extremely inspiring and a true role model, especially for those who come from the rural areas like him,’ Stick says. ‘Another example of this is how he had the opportunity to go play overseas, but he decided to stay in South Africa to keep achieving more.

‘If we talk about his experience, he has only played 14 Tests, and so there’s a lot more he can do. If you look at the next challenges, there is no doubt Makazole would want to play against the British & Irish Lions, and considering how well he looks after himself, I think there’s even a good chance he could make it to the next World Cup.

‘Mapimps is a true inspiration, and this has shone through as we’ve seen another side of him now where he’s fighting against gender-based violence and spreading the word about protecting our daughters, our sisters, our mothers  these are important subjects where someone like him can really make a difference through his platform.

‘In the position where we are, it’s important to not only make a difference just between the four lines on the field. The South African people come out to support us, and make sacrifices to do so, and we owe it to the country to give back and to also raise awareness about subjects like protecting our women.’

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Craig Lewis