Q&A: Siya Kolisi on Rugby, Race and What’s Next for South Africa

South Africa’s national rugby union team, the Springboks, won the World Cup back on Nov. 2, 2019.

The Springboks’ first Black captain, Siya Kolisi, lifted the Webb Ellis trophy and the spirits of his nation, and there was widespread optimism that the most diverse South Africa rugby team ever to take the world’s top prize would do much to bring healing to an often divided nation.

But the Springboks couldn’t get back on the field for 20 months.

Still, South Africa has clung to its world No. 1 ranking despite the long pandemic layoff, though several contenders who have played tough matches might now claim they deserve the top spot.

The rusty Springboks finally played a match on July 2, when they logged a comfortable 40-9 win over Georgia as they begin preparation in earnest for a major challenge this month when the British and Irish Lions squad visits for eight games against South African opposition, ending with three official test matches against the Springboks on July 24, July 31 and Aug. 7.

Some preparation matches are up in the air, because of a coronavirus outbreak in the Springbok camp, including Jacques Nienaber, the new head coach, and flyhalf Handré Pollard. A second match against Georgia scheduled for Friday was canceled.

The quadrennial Lions tour is world rugby’s biggest event between World Cup years and alternates among the three Southern Hemisphere powers with matches every 12 years in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The team is an all-star test squad of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Traveling fans from Britain and Ireland usually take up half or more of the stadiums, in what is often called the sea of red, but because of the pandemic, there will be no spectators this year.

On the eve of the tour, Kolisi spoke with The New York Times about the Springboks, his background growing up poor in a township outside Port Elizabeth, and off-field activities he has been busy with since the World Cup.

This conversation took place a few weeks before South Africa faced Georgia, and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

After the long layoff, can the Springboks be prepared to take on the best of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland this summer? What’s your assessment of the Lions team Coach Warren Gatland has assembled?

Yes, I definitely think so. We’re still working hard, so I think the team will be prepared and ready by the time the tests come. I think Gatland has picked a very physical team, kind of a big team to try to match the Springboks physically. It’s always been a tough series, so I think physically it’s going to be up there, some of the toughest games that we’ll ever have.

How do you think not having spectators will affect the atmosphere and the overall feel of the event?

I know the Lions tour usually does so much not just for the rugby but for the country itself, for the continent. People come in in numbers, they do tourism things, and for the economy it does so much. But you won’t see that sea of red in the stands from the traveling Lions fans. Still, for whoever is chosen to play, it’s going to be special. There’ll probably be a lot of stories saying it’s the first Lions tour without fans, but there’s enough opportunity for players to shine regardless, and at the end of the day when they write about this in the history books, they’re going to write the scores, not whether there were fans or not on that day, so we still have to make it work.

After you won the World Cup, you and other members of the team spoke eloquently about how you thought the victory would do a lot to bring the country together. How well do you think this has actually happened?

You know we were confronted with the pandemic afterward. We saw how people were excited when they were watching us play in the World Cup, and how together they were for those moments. But I think we as players were able to do so much more to help during the pandemic. Like after the World Cup, with our foundations, with the work that we do to use our personal brands to help others who are in need during the pandemic. We were able to use some of our kit from the World Cup to raise some funds as the team, but also individually. More people wanted to work with us, and we were able to donate food, donate P.P.E. and do all those kinds of things with people for the good. That was a very important and a huge thing for us to see, that after people were backing us and supporting us during the whole World Cup, we were able to come when they needed us the most, we were able to come and do our part.

After the death of George Floyd in the United States, there were Black Lives Matter protests worldwide. You spoke out and received criticism from some white South Africans who said “all lives matter.” I’ve listened to your eloquent explanation of why you decided to sign on to the Black Lives Matter movement but wonder if you think the message has gotten through.

For me, that video was all about sharing my story. I can’t speak about everything, because I haven’t experienced everything like everybody else. All I’m concerned about is my own personal journey. All that I was basically saying is that my dream is for equality for everyone. Not just for me, or people that look like me. Everybody should have a fair playing field. And that’s my biggest fight. And some people don’t hear that. They don’t want to hear what I’m saying. They think I’m putting myself or my race above everybody else. All I’m saying is that let’s all play on the same playing field. That’s all I’m saying. Equality for everyone. That’s my message. It’s always been my message. Imagine how our society or how the world would be if kids woke up in different parts of the world and could dream and just want to be whatever they want to be, that it’s possible for them to wake up and dream to be a doctor, because they have been given the infrastructure around them, and they can see they have reference points — role models. We’ve made it, and they know, “OK, he’s done it, I can also believe I can be that.”

So tell me a bit about that personal journey.

I’m saying that for me, I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t dream to be me right now, when I was young. But I had help. I was helped by my community, getting food every day. I didn’t have food every day, so my grandmother would go up to neighbors for a cup of mealie-meal and a cup of rice to just make me full. And sometimes I would go to bed just having sugar water. And that was just life. The mentality in the hood, or the township or the poor areas, is just survival: How do I get through today?

So you must have quite a few stories to share about your upbringing in the township.

I can tell you something. I’m releasing my book in September. I talk about my life in the book. A little about rugby and everything else. Because someone wrote a book about me without my permission. So I’m doing my own book. It’s called “Rise.” It’s from my Mom’s name. In Xhosa her name was Phakama, and that means “rise.”

Your wife, Rachel, is from South Africa’s white community. Do you think this has helped break down any of the resistance to your position from that community?

She knows me, she knows my story and she loves every single part of me. And she knows me more than anybody else knows me, and she also wants change. She also just wants fairness. That’s all what we’re about. We have two kids, and my two young siblings live with us, and my siblings look like me. And it’s not even about them, because they’re fine, they go to all the great schools; I look after them. But it’s all of their mates that they’ve left behind that nobody’s fighting for. So Rachel and I believe a lot of the same things, and we fight for the same causes. We are fighting for equality for everyone.

You and your wife have a foundation whose mission is to “change narratives of inequality.” What do you mean by this, and of the kinds of projects the foundation is doing, do you have a favorite?

What I mean by that is basically what I’ve been saying the whole time. The way I grew up, kids shouldn’t have to grow up like that. And yet there are people who experience far worse childhoods than I have. But I don’t think that’s fair. You know I got a bursary [scholarship] when I was 12 years old to go to a suburb school because of sports. And when I got there, I just looked at the building, and I said, “Wow, I can be whatever I want to be in this life.” Just from looking at the infrastructure. And I thought, my friends need this. The township needs this; the hood needs this. Because if a building can change my mind-set, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re fighting for. We just want to have those opportunities.

My favorite project? Well, the sports things we do are obviously good, but the most important to me is the gender-based violence, where we get all men in the township talking about gender-based violence.

I grew up around a community where gender-based violence was such a normal thing. Seeing a man lift his hand to a woman had become so normal that you wouldn’t even turn to look when you hear a woman scream. So I want to encourage more men to speak more about it. I want to get more men sharing their stories and asking questions.

Do you see yourself as a role model to South African youth?

No, I do not see myself like that, but some do see me like that. But I do see myself as a role model to my daughter and my son and my young brother and sister. And that’s who I want to inspire every single day because I believe if I can set a great example for them, it will obviously lead to others outside, but that’s the first and foremost people that I want to make sure that I inspire and that I live a life that I want them to be proud of. I want them to look at me and say you know what, I want to be like my dad. I try to keep it small, but I don’t try to focus on the rest of South Africa.