Siyamthanda “Siya” Kolisi was born on 16 June 1991 in Zwide Township in Port Elizabeth (PE), Eastern Cape. He was born exactly 15 years after the Soweto Youth Uprisings, and 16 months after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, in the midst of South Africa’s transition to democracy.
Kolisi’s upbringing was characterized by poverty and he was raised by his paternal grandmother. The two-bedroomed house she lived in was already occupied by five people, so he had to sleep on a special makeshift bed made from bed cushions squashed together by the front door.
Besides the crippling poverty and crushing boredom experienced by Kolisi in his early days as a young boy, there were other societal issues that he had to contend with, such as substance abuse as an alternative to his daily reality. This was the vicious cycle that some of his friends fell into.
Kolisi started playing rugby at the tender age of seven whilst at Emsengeni Primary School (where he met his longtime mentor Eric Songwiqi) when he joined the local rugby team, African Bombers Rugby Club. It would be five years after his joining African Bombers, at 12-years, that Kolisi finally received a scholarship at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Grey Junior School in PE. On his African Bombers 1st XV debut, as a raw 15-year-old, he had to line-up against Solly Tyibilika, another cult hero from PE and the first black African to score a Test try for the Springboks, against Scotland in Murrayfield in 2004. Not much could scare him after that experience. All of this was made possible by the support, commitment and dedication offered to him by Eric Songwiqi.
Upon his arrival at Grey Junior, he could not speak a word of English, but it was thanks to one of his classmates, Nicholas Holton, teaching him English and in return, Kolisi would also teach Nicholas isiXhosa. Only then did Kolisi finally get settled in academically. Nicholas Holton would go on to be one of Kolisi’s oldest friends and was his best man at his wedding; also, Kolisi’s son is named after Nicholas Holton.
It was not until he was 16 did Kolisi’s high school rugby career really takeoff, the very same year that he lost his mother. In 2007 he was captain of the Grey U16A rugby team and made the Eastern Province (EP) Grant Khomo team where he played a pivotal role in them winning that age group interprovincial tournament. For the next two years, his name would be a regular in Grey’s 1st XV, EP U18 Craven Week (also an interprovincial tournament) and the South African Schools teams.
As much as African Bombers and Grey had groomed him to be the rugby player that he was at this stage of his life, after his arrival at the Western Province Rugby Institute in Stellenbosch in 2010, it was pretty clear that there were still a few rough edges that still needed to be smoothed out. One was rugby tackling - he noted, “Township guys don’t like tackling…It’s not that we can’t, but we just don’t like it. I used to hate tackling at school. I came to Western Province, and I had to tackle every single day. And I started loving it, especially when I hit someone hard.”
Through his hard work and determination to succeed, Kolisi won the U19 ABSA Currie Cup with Western Province in his first year in 2010. The following year he would graduate to Western Province’s Vodacom Cup team and indeed the Junior Springboks (Baby Boks) team that came fifth at the World Rugby U20 Championship (formerly known as the International Rugby Board Junior World Championship). Had it not been for a late-night mugging after a friend’s birthday party, Kolisi would have made his debut for the Stormers from Cape Town in the playoff game against the Crusaders in 2011.
The 2012 season would prove to be Kolisi’s breakthrough year in senior rugby as he made his debut for the Stormers where he was replacing the ill Schalk Burger. In that very same year, he would prove to be an invaluable asset to the Stormers’ Super Rugby cause, help Western Province to their first Currie Cup title in 11 years, and it all culminated in him getting a call-up to the Springboks for the European end of the year tour. Kolisi would only go on to make his Test debut for the Springboks in 2013 against Scotland in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. He was named the vice-captain of the Springboks in 2017 under Coach Allister Coetzee. He emerged as one of the few standout performers in what was one of the worst seasons for the Springboks in recent history.
The following year, under new coach Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus he went on to replace Warren Whitely as the captain of the Springboks. This was a historical moment in South African rugby as Kolisi was the first black player to captain the Springboks. What would undoubtedly be the pinnacle of his success as a rugby player to date would follow roughly 16 months later when he led the Springboks to their third Rugby World Cup title in Japan after beating England 32-12 in the final match.
The success of Kolisi and his team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup mirrored that of the class of 1995 under the leadership of Francois Pienaar. It was a beacon of hope and a much-needed source of patriotism and emphasis on unity that has been so dearly needed in South Africa over the last few years.
The Telegraph. (2011) Former Springbok Solly Tyibilika shot dead in Cape Town, From The Telegraph, 13 November 2011, Available at www.telegraph.co.uk [Accessed: 20 January 2020].
Mockford, Sarah, (2019) Siya Kolisi’s journey from township to Test star, From Rugby World, 28 October 2019, [Online], Available at www.rugbyworld.com [Accessed: 14 January 2020].
Morgan, Sam, (2019) Siya Kolisi is South Africa’s first black rugby captain, and shares incredible Nelson Mandela bond over number 6 jersey, From The Sun, 2 November 2019, Available at www.thesun.co.uk [Accessed: 20 January 2020].
Powers, Angus, (2015) Siya Kolisi – The True Story, From Spit Braai Blog, 21 January 2015, Available at www.spitbraaidelivery.co.za [Accessed: 15 January 2020].