Springbok Superstar Siya Kolisi has Lunch with the FT – Township hero to World Cup Champion

Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of South Africa’s Springboks rugby team, shares his journey from humble beginnings in a township outside Port Elizabeth to winning the Rugby World Cup and becoming a symbol of hope and leadership. In an exclusive interview with the Financial Times in London, Kolisi discusses his early life, the importance of community, and the challenges he overcame. He reflects on his leadership philosophy, emphasising humility and shared responsibility. Kolisi also sheds light on his advocacy against gender-based violence and the impact of diversity in rugby. As he prepares for a game in London, Kolisi’s story resonates as a testament to resilience, unity, and the power of sport.

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Rugby superstar Siya Kolisi: ‘I’ve got no ego at all’

By Alec Russell Editor of FT Weekend

The first black captain of the Springboks on winning the Rugby World Cup, the art of leadership — and why it is vital to know what you don’t know

(First published 3 February 2023) — A few days before I am to meet one of the world’s sporting gods, his latest impromptu homily lights up his homeland’s social media feeds. Introducing himself as “a dad and a husband”, he touches on the power cuts and the unemployment blighting his country before closing with a call for sport to give people “something to smile about”.

I am listening dreamily on my phone in the reception of a London hotel when the very same voice calls to me across the foyer. I look up to see Siya Kolisi bounding out of the lift towards me. South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning captain is half an hour early for our interview.

Read more: Unmasking the hidden side and demons of maverick Springbok innovator Rassie Erasmus – David O’Sullivan

I should not be surprised. Kolisi has lived his 31 years at full tilt. He is the township boy who became the first black captain of a team long synonymous with Afrikanerdom. He is a titan of the ultimate macho game who likes to speak of faith, family and the scourge of domestic violence. He and Rachel, his white South African wife, have breathed new life into the frayed spirit of the Rainbow Nation with their public campaigns about the country’s ills. One of seven global figures in a Netflix series on leadership part-produced by Prince Harry, he will star on his own later this month, in a documentary based on his autobiography.

Right now, though, I remind myself never to overestimate the glamour of professional sport. Kolisi’s 6ft 2in frame has just emerged from an overnight economy-class flight from Cape Town. His hotel in west London’s suburbs, while discreet and friendly, at £120 a night and just along from a car dealership, is hardly celebrity central.

It is also at least 30 degrees colder than back home. As he poses on a street corner for pictures, office workers trudge by, heads down. Then a silver-haired man with a muscular physique stops and stares.

“Oh my God,” he says. “You have to let me take a selfie. I was a flanker too . . . ” 

Kolisi embraces his soulmate. In rugby — a sport as close to legalised violence as you get, and which via diet and training has reached new peaks of physicality — the two flankers on each 15-strong team have an especially punishing role: they have to keep making the big tackles to bring down thundering giants. Time and again they literally put their bodies on the line. Kolisi played this selfless role to perfection in the World Cup final in November 2019, when his Springboks demolished a more fancied England team.

“Oh my God,” the selfie-taker says again, as he walks disbelievingly away. The only time I hear Kolisi mention God is when he tells me how he recites a different verse from the Bible ahead of every match.

Siyamthanda (“we love you” in isiXhosa) Kolisi was born in a township outside the industrial city of Port Elizabeth in the dying days of white minority rule. It was three years before Nelson Mandela took office. His upbringing was “a soft life, beautiful and easy”, he says, compared with the conditions he saw two years ago when he and Rachel drove around South Africa on a 15,000km tour donating food.

“What I saw broke my heart,” he says. “Some places had no water. It’s over 20 years of democracy and still a lot of people are suffering far more than I was. I was shocked at how people are living.”

His account is an implicit indictment of the record of the ruling African National Congress in tackling the legacy of apartheid. I demur, though, at the idea that he had an easy ride. His mother, Phakama, just 18 when he was born, was regularly beaten by his alcoholic father, who was even younger. She eventually fled home, leaving Kolisi to be raised by his father’s mother. In his autobiography, Rise — English for Phakama — he writes agonisingly about his mother’s ordeal and also of learning of her death when he was 15.

I think for a leader it shows strength when you know what you don’t know

Kolisi could so easily have been consumed by all this. But he was guided from that fate by his grandmother and a township school rugby coach who saw his potential and steered him to a scholarship at a semi-private formerly whites-only school. It is this maelstrom of experiences, he says, that drives him both on and off the pitch.

We have returned to the warmth of the hotel for lunch. As the waiter takes our orders, I ask Kolisi about his leadership philosophy. It is rooted, he says, in his early lessons in responsibility. “I knew I had to look after my family too. I learnt about community. People around us always helped.

“And my grandmother always taught me to be happy in tough situations. I’ve been raised to see the positive in life — although not to be blind to what’s happening in our country. I just speak about my experiences because then you can’t lie.”

This feeds into the Instagram posts he delivers to his 700,000 followers about gender-based violence. “It killed more people in South Africa than Covid but not much is done about it,” he says. “I think it’s because it doesn’t affect men. Well, it does affect men but men don’t want to talk about it.

“I have more men than women following me on social media. They won’t like it if I post about violence. But if I post about rugby, everyone is going to like it . . . ”

His leadership is most under scrutiny on the pitch. Rugby is a lightning-fast sport. Errors change a game in a heartbeat. His first three games in charge in 2018, after a dismal few years for the team, were “horrible” — he did not play well. But his partnership with the Afrikaner coach Rassie Erasmus was key.

It wasn’t so long ago that a black centre would have thought twice about yelling at a white scrum half

“Rassie knew I would be afraid at the beginning. He created a system of shared leadership. Each player had a responsibility on the field, so I didn’t have to talk about everything. 

“I’ve got no ego at all. I think for a leader it shows strength when you know what you don’t know. A lot of people get it wrong when they want to talk about things they don’t know, and they lead people in the wrong direction.”

Kolisi has of course a steely side. I ask about the moment when, in the heat of the 2019 final, he whispered in the ear of a teammate who had made a costly mistake. He smiles: “I was just telling him to relax and not to panic. And that we are all good and we move on.”

Ahead of our lunch I had asked Will Carling, the England rugby captain of the early 1990s, about captaincy. I put to Kolisi his view that to be a great captain you need a higher purpose than just winning, and that this was one of the reasons for South Africa’s success. The Springboks have won the World Cup three times since and including 1995, after emerging from sporting isolation under apartheid.

“We were in the darkest of places,” Kolisi says of the context of the 2019 final. It was a year after the disastrous presidency of Jacob Zuma. “Our coach said, ‘People want to listen to winners. Win this trophy and your influence will be more.’”

Read more: The Kolisi Foundation tackling Covid-19 induced hunger

Did that purpose help, I ask, when at one stage in the final his team had to make a last-ditch defensive effort against relentless English pressure?

“People where we come from do not want people to give up. They’re not very forgiving, because we face far harder circumstances than just a rugby game.”

When I first broached Lunch with the FT three years ago, just before Covid closed the world, I had envisaged a braai (barbecue) or even a meal at Kolisi’s home — he tells me that when not on tour he has pledged to Rachel to cook at least one meal a week for their two children. But there are few breaks in the life of a professional, and now that, as of last year, South African clubs are playing in Europe’s Champions Cup, he is travelling all the more. He is in London with his club, the Sharks of Durban, for a game against the English club Harlequins, at their Twickenham ground. So, a light lunch before training it is.

A group of white teammates banter from across the reception. He teases them back. It is a picture-postcard image of a multiracial team at ease with itself. Kolisi talks of a moment in the final when Lukhanyo Am, another black superstar, sprints down the pitch and appeals to Faf de Klerk, the tiny Afrikaner playmaker, to pass him the ball. As Kolisi writes in his memoir: “It wasn’t so long ago that a black centre would have thought twice about yelling at a white scrum half.”

I was in Johannesburg in 1995, I tell him, when Mandela embraced the game, turning up for the final in the strip of a No 6 — the position played by the then captain Francois Pienaar, and now Kolisi. As immortalised in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy — later Hollywoodised as Invictus — it was a masterstroke, helping to bind the fractured nation. But there was an element of make-believe to the story. There was only one non-white player in the team and the sport was still riven by race. 

Rugby had long had a proud tradition in the African communities in the Eastern Cape region where Kolisi grew up, dating back to the arrival of English settlers in the 19th century. Steve Biko, the legendary activist, who was beaten to death in 1977 in police custody often played. But under white rule, black rugby teams had minimal state support, and the idea of a black Springbok was inconceivable. How bad was the racism when he started playing, I ask? And how is it that the sport has changed?

“I don’t like to shed light on the first part,” he says. “But I can tell you this: Rassie was the first coach to speak about transformation. He understood what it is. He picked black players who were good enough, but also trained them for the required positions to be good. 

“It showed our country how strong diversity is when used properly, when you put people in positions and train them. You don’t just say ‘I’m going to transform someone’ and throw him in there and hope he makes it.”

The Springboks and the Proteas, the national cricket team, have quotas for non-white players. A recent run of defeats for the Proteas has reanimated an argument that sport has been sacrificed for politics. This is especially hard for non-white players, who face racist abuse on social media — but also often question themselves as to the grounds for their selection.

Kolisi steers clear of talking about quotas. But he again salutes Erasmus. “He has told us, ‘I have picked some of you not because you are the best, but because you are the right people for this team, because of the stuff you have been through. I know that when it gets difficult on the pitch you won’t hide away.’

“Sometimes if the public is saying a player is playing badly, he’ll come and talk to you and say in front of everyone, ‘You are my guy.’ He’s done that to me once in front of everyone.”

Erasmus has had two bans during the past two years for his public criticism of referees. Were his interventions difficult for the team? “It was difficult for everyone,” Kolisi says. “He had his reasons. We are all part of the rugby family and sometimes families have disagreements . . . ”

I am revelling in a warming bowl of herby tomato soup and a Caesar salad. Kolisi has forgone food ahead of his training. I appreciate all too well the importance of diet given I have a son who plays university rugby. He had urged me to ask Kolisi, I say, about the debate over player health, in light of reports of a possible link between head injuries and dementia.

Kolisi flags that some players worry the game will lose its thrill, but he supports the trend for monitoring via special mouthguards and scrum caps or video. “When they pull you out, you do get upset. But knowing what the end result could be, it’s good . . . ”

On other fronts, he is pushing for change to keep rugby relevant. He agrees with Carling, the former England captain, that the sport needs to embrace the idea of stars. 

On social media some people were very nasty . . . But over time I just don’t care. You can’t force change

“Look at basketball. Look at soccer. Yes, rugby is a team sport. Those stars are nothing without their teammates. But rugby has been so conservative — if you celebrate crazily you’ll be frowned upon because that’s not what we do . . . I’m not saying go crazy. But we need to loosen up.

“Rugby can’t compete with other sports financially. A player should be judged on what he delivers on the field. What he does off the field to earn more is fine . . . because at the end of the day, for the players, rugby is going to end.”

That is clearly on Kolisi’s mind. He revealed at the start of the year that after the World Cup he is moving to Paris to play for a French club, Racing 92. He is wary of talking about it, not wanting to give the impression that he already has one foot out the door. “But I am very excited, obviously,” he says. “It’s going to be something different.”

Read more: How the Boks can tackle the burden of expectation and bring light to the nation – Dr Greyling Viljoen

He will be paid a lot more than in South Africa. The relative anonymity there may also be a boon. His fame yields adoration in his homeland, but at a price. I recall Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying to me once how the sight of a black and a white student kissing on campus had heartened him, showing that attitudes were changing. How was it for Kolisi when he and Rachel started their relationship?

“It was horrible in the beginning,” he says. “It was very bad. On social media some people were very nasty. And my wife doesn’t hold back and will let people know how she feels too. But over time I just don’t care. I feel sorry for them because it’s just normal. But I do understand. You can’t force change.”

Kolisi, who is with the star agency Roc Nation Sports International, says he will return to South Africa after his contract expires. His post-rugby life, he says, will focus on the foundation that he and Rachel set up in 2020 to address inequality, and his clothing brand, Freedom of Movement, in which he has a stake. He hopes his time in France will open up new avenues for fundraising. He also thinks the linkage of the European and South African club competitions will benefit his country. “It will be good for players to go to South Africa and see what it’s like and not just the bad stuff they see on the news.”

Inevitably, some suggest that he has a future in politics. He does have a vision for government: to be run like the Springboks. “We play against each other in different franchises and then we come together in one team. Politicians should compete every four years in elections and then come back and work towards the same plan.”

It seems too decent for a chance of success. Then again, Kolisi seems too gentle for success on the pitch. This autumn he will be competing to be the second captain ever to win two world cups. Now, however, he has a game to prepare for on a freezing afternoon at Twickenham. He races up to his room, changes into a Sharks strip and huddles with his coach. Never overestimate the glamour of professional sport.

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