Captain Kolisi

South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, gets a black captain for the first time in its history--24 years after the end of Apartheid.

Siya Kolisi. Image credit Ashley Vlotman via Gallo Images.

Siya Kolisi will run out against England at Ellis Park on June 9th, officially the first black captain in the team’s 126-year history. Even more striking: he is the first black captain in the 26 years since the Springbok rugby team was no longer a whites-only affair, and black players excluded (with a few exceptions) from playing for the team.

Predictably, the appointment was an opportunity for South Africa’s recidivist racists to bemoan that there one more symbol of white supremacism has been toppled. And those who are circumspect, raised the question whether his appointment was “political.” By contrast, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who as an aside, I met once watching a rugby game at an Upper East Side bar), said that the news makes us walk very tall.

The symbolic importance can’t be discounted, but equally the reaction points to how far South Africa still has to travel. Just as the rise of black quarterbacks and head coaches in the NFL does not signal the demise of racial bias in the league (witness the franchise owners kow-towing to US President Donald Trump over his insistence that player protests not be allowed during the play of the US national anthem before games). So too does Kolisi’s appointment not mean that black players will no longer be demeaned, undermined and overlooked, as the Ashwin Willemse saga only recently suggested. In the latter, case the former South African player of the year, walked off a TV set after feeling insulted by Nic Mallett and Naas Botha, two former Springboks. At the time, Willemse, whose actions were praised by most black rugby supporters, said he was “not going to be patronized by two individuals who played [during] apartheid.”

Flying in the face of racism masquerading as concerns that Kolisi has no pedigree to be Springbok captain, he was already groomed for the captaincy when former national and Cape Stormers coach Alistair “Toetie” Coetzee (only the second black Springbok coach) made him vice captain of the national team last year. That was preceded by his appointment as captain of the Cape Stormers, where Kolisi has played over 100 games, and even then faced criticism he was unprepared for the job.

But even more so, Kolisi’s pedigree is one that is largely invisible to his detractors. He comes from a long line of rugby players, and was raised in the heartland of African rugby. Zwide, the township were he was born, is the home of Dan Qeqe Stadium,  a bastion of non-racial rugby (as part of the South African Council of Sports’s South African Rugby Union), that doubled both as a playing field and rally site for United Democratic Front in the 1980s when the Apartheid was at its most brutally oppressive. Rugby has been integral to these communities since the early 1900s, with some clubs like Spring Roses sharing their founders with the earliest African National Congress leaders.

It’s not only Kolisi’s background that makes him distinctive. There are a few exceptions (like Ray Mordt, Schalk Burger and to a lesser extent Francois Pienaar), but in general terms, Springbok teams of the past (read, mostly white teams) have not incorporated a player who has honed their ability to play the role of an open-side flanker.

In fact, the philosophy that is inculcated from junior levels is to play left and right loose forwards, with players expected to be as adept at hitting the point of contact as they are at clearing out the ruck in support. Plus, the style of play of big forwards running into players to make yards, and little interplay with the backline, translates into there being little space for open side specialists.

By contrast, Kolisi is a open-side flanker who uses his turn of pace, upper body strength, vision  and balance to open up space on attack. On defense, Kolisi makes use of his pace and anticipation to drive the ball carrier behind the advantage line—forcing opposing teams to play backwards. In some cases, he’ll even use his ability to move around the field to pick off intercept passes. A talented open-side flanker has the ability to turn games, to break up defenses and to shift the game’s momentum.

It’s also an indication of his character that as soon as Kolisi makes a break, his head is up immediately to assess where he can make the offload, or to take a few extra steps to draw defenders and put the next player into a gap. Few players in South African rugby play like this—their course of action is typically to keep running until they are tackled until they look to make the pass.

Now that Kolisi will lead the Springboks, he will inevitably be compared with the New Zealand All Black captain Richie McCaw, who has helped his team dominate international rugby. A more appropriate comparison is probably Michael Jones: another open-side specialist who was a natural leader, who led by example with humility and charisma during the 1990s.

Although, that is the entirely wrong comparison to make. The more appropriate comparison to put the symbolism in the proper perspective is to think in terms of the comparison with those African players who never had the opportunity to make their claim.

The symbolic value of Kolisi’s appointment is not only that he has struck a blow against white supremacy. He has also elevated the struggle to get there, and those that came before him. When a Springbok captain can speak at length in isiXhosa at a national press conference of his responsibility to change perceptions and to use his visibility to recast what the Springbok captaincy means, he is showing what South African rugby has missed out on until now, but also what its future can hold.

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