The appointment of South Africa's first black Test rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, has created a lot of excitement in the country. It means a lot for rugby and how it was perceived especially by the millions of black South Africans who could not connect with the sport because of how it was used to exclude them.

A sporting code was in the past used for narrow ethnic ends. The appointment of Siya, much as we all and should, celebrate it should not cause us amnesia about our past. It is a historical fact that segregation along racial boundaries denied black South Africans access to rugby and the top-level facilities and training that would enable them to represent South Africa in a Springbok jersey. This effect was surely intentional. The National Party envisioned the Springbok symbol as a representation of the values and characteristics of the Afrikaner people.

In their minds, allowing black players to don the Springbok jersey was a step toward the erosion of these values. The Springbok had come to symbolize more than rugby excellence to the hard-line Afrikaner – it had come to symbolize racial superiority. In a sense, the Springbok Jersey was in another section of our society a symbol of black suffering.

That symbolism – of Afrikaner superiority and black suffering - was disrupted when former President Nelson Mandela appeared before a worldwide audience wearing the notorious green-and-gold jersey during the 1995 World Cup final. That represented the most unlikely political turnaround imaginable. And when the Springboks went on to lift the World Rugby trophy, South Africa erupted in a non-racial chorus of jubilation, no doubt inspired by Madiba who had earlier appeared wearing the Springbok jersey.

What was a symbol that divided South Africa along racial lines united us. That is the power of sport. That fleeting moment soon passed and we went back to what one can call our old ways. Another moment, also occasioned by sport, came when South Africa had the opportunity to host the Soccer World Cup in 2010. Sport united us as we rolled out the welcoming red carpet to the world. For a moment, we seemed to forget our differences and the issues that divide us along racial lines. The event passed and, again, we regressed to our old ways.

In spite of our relapses, I still believe that sport is one area that can unite us. It has done so in the past albeit not for long. We need programmes and developments around sports that can build social cohesion and make these passing moments of unity long lasting. The appointment of Siya is one such development. He is not captain for a month, which is about just the period the Soccer World is hosted. Siya, all things being equal, will be captain for much longer and sections of our society that previously regarded rugby as their exclusive preserve will hopefully get used to calling him “our” captain. It may be shock to some people’s system but when it ultimately becomes normal for a black player to captain the Springboks, then we would have come a long way in normalizing what is abnormal.

But in the big story about Siya’s appointment and what it means for race relations, we should not lose sight of Siya the boy and how his story can inspire millions of South African boys. Siya was reportedly born to teenage parents and had to be raised by his grandmother. So, his childhood was not a bed of roses, especially with his grandmother having to take odd jobs as a domestic worker wherever she could to provide for the family.

He grew up in the impoverished township of Zwide in the Eastern Cape and his surroundings meant he could not even dream of making it as a provincial rugby player, let alone captaining the Springboks, a team traditionally dominated by white players. But when the opportunity came his way, he grabbed it with both hands.

His story demonstrates that inhibiting as these may be, family background and geographical location, can be transcended. One hopes that Siya will be an inspiration to many young lads who face similar hurdles in life. He represents generations of men who were denied the opportunity to don the old green jersey. In him, they see themselves and rejoice.

One hopes that the nation will give him all the support he needs and that he will bring a sense of unity to a sport and nation scarred by racial inequality and social injustices.


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