It’s the pain of waking up in the middle of the night with a cramping, empty stomach that still haunts Siya Kolisi. That feeling from his youth will stay with him forever.
The South African captain’s journey, from extreme poverty in the township – raised by his grandmother with barely a penny to their name – to World Cup glory-stricken communities on every continent.
It opened doors that Kolisi never knew existed and has given him a voice he is not afraid to use. The most influential man in rugby? It is official.
Siya Kolisi’s journey from extreme poverty in the township to the glory of the World Cup has touched many
“It’s hectic here,” says Kolisi, speaking of Zoom from his home in Cape Town. ‘It is difficult. All the struggles we have as a country have been enhanced by Covid-19. The president spoke on TV this week and there is a new curfew as numbers have gone up.
Something as big as the Lions tour will lift many companies and many minds in our country. Hopefully a cure will be found and that’s the way to start it. But thinking so far ahead is difficult. ‘
In South Africa, they say Kolisi would win by a landslide if he became president. His influence has been compared to that of Nelson Mandela, so it is no surprise that he is leading the way and setting up a nationwide food bank.
Driven by his own struggles with food shortages, he uses his platform to make a difference and his inspiration comes from an unlikely source: a 22-year-old footballer from Manchester.
The Springboks captain delivers food parcels to a township in East London, South Africa
“As athletes, as people with a platform, we have to do so much more,” says Kolisi. “Inequality in our country – more than just food – is something that needs urgent attention. People suffer. Kids are still struggling like me – and much worse.
“I can’t explain in words what it’s like to wake up without knowing when you’re going to get food. It becomes normal. You must have food.
“I remember the worst nights when I was rummaging in bed with my stomach. It was as painful as a stomachache.
“Sometimes I only ate one meal a day, that was the meal I got at school. It was a sandwich … that’s it. It was difficult, man. Occasionally people in the community helped, but I came from a proud family and we were reluctant to ask. It is terrible to get help, but we had to and that’s why I love the community.
“It’s probably the worst experience I’ve had: being hungry. It was horrible. I would cry at my grandmother. She had no answers, but she used everything she had to make me happy. Either you read me a story, say something nice to me or make me sugar water. That kept me going. I am still alive. I’m still here.
“People are now celebrating my story, but it shouldn’t be like that … stories shouldn’t be celebrated because of the struggle they had. No child should go through such a struggle. That is why we are here and doing our bit.
He admits that he was inspired by the fundraising work of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford
“I am so inspired by the work Marcus Rashford does [at] 22 years old. Many people don’t have the guts to do that. I wish I had someone who did that for me. If we all talk about the social environment as athletes, it can make a difference. ‘
The influence of Kolisi has increased enormously since the World Cup. He was signed by Roc Nation – rapper Jay-Z’s agency – and even received a ‘happy birthday’ text from Jurgen Klopp last month. He would like to see rugby follow in the footsteps of football, where taking a knee to support Black Lives Matter has become the norm.
“What the Premier League does with Black Lives Matter is so powerful,” he says. “I never want to force someone to do something they don’t want to, but it’s a very important movement. Much education needs to be given. The way black people have been treated in some parts of the world is not fair and we just want to be treated equally.
Rugby is played by every race and rugby is for everyone. I’m sure people in rugby appreciate everyone’s life, so I think they would support it.
“We just have to understand each other and understand that we all bring something different. Diversity can be used as a force. We are all gifted with different things and we used that as a team during the World Cup last year. We all had different backgrounds.
“Some boys may be the same color, but we were still different people and we celebrated that. We brought it together with one goal: to improve the team; to improve the country and win the World Cup. We did that. It can be used anywhere in the world, whatever you do. We just have to get along and make sure we are the person they are and celebrate their cultures.
“Taking a knee would let everyone know that we support the movement. It happened with football and cricket. If some don’t want to do it, it doesn’t mean they don’t support it. It would be good to see. ‘
Rugby has to resume first at club level and next year’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa is a light at the end of the tunnel. Kolisi was a schoolboy when the lions last traveled through South Africa in 2009, remembering the buzz that swept the country after the Springboks snatched the series in the final test.
Kolisi inspired South Africa to the glory of the Rugby World Cup over England in Japan last year
“We watched it in the hostel at school,” he says. Jacques Fourie scored the try in the corner and Morne Steyn kicked the winning goal after Ronan O’Gara tackled someone in the air. You could see the excitement across the country, especially the teachers!
“Every player dreams of playing in a Lions series and I would like to be there. We will work hard, but hopefully we have some other games ahead of us now. It will be huge for the country.
“People can’t wait, especially after the World Cup. The great thing is that it will be at home here. Not many people get to see it in their lives. ‘
Given the circumstances in the country, does he see a likely scenario in which the matches are played for packed stadiums?
“I really don’t know, but I always have hope,” says Kolisi. The most important thing is to find a cure, so that lives can be saved and people don’t lose a company. I would also really like us to get back on the field and have a crowd. A Lions tour with no one watching will beat the whole point.
“Man, think about all the people traveling over and the atmosphere before the game. Without an audience it would be different, but if it is the only choice we have, I will play. What else can I do? “
Rugby takes shape in producing iconic moments in South Africa. Kolisi who is lifting the Webb Ellis trophy is now sitting next to Nelson Mandela with Francois Pienaar in 1995 and in 12 months there could be another famous photo, as Warren Gatland hinted that Maro Itoje could lead the lions.
“Maro is a great guy and that would be so good for the sport,” says Kolisi. “It would show young black children that it is possible. It’s about being a captain, not because of your skin color, but because you deserve it, you’ve worked hard and you’re qualified. That is the most important thing. It would be huge. People here would celebrate.
“When it happened to me here in South Africa, I never really understood what it meant, but I recently sat back and some of my friends explained to me what it did for them.
“Some of their kids now look up and have me on the wall saying, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ They believe they can be Springbok captain because they have seen someone who looks like them and who has achieved it. It would be great for young black children to see that. ‘