Bokbefokked over Siya Kolisi

Andrew Donaldson writes on the British press response to the Springbok captain's new autobiography


THERE is no polite way of putting this, but both The Times and The Sunday Times, Britain’s leading “quality” broadsheets, came over all Bokbefok at the weekend. Not for the whole team, though — just captain Siya Kolisi. 

What prompted the loving attention was the publication on Monday of Kolisi’s autobiographyRise (HarperCollins). The hype surrounding the book, co-authored with Boris Starling, a respected novelist and screenwriter, has been considerable.

Cover shouts have come from, among others, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford (“Siya’s rise … is the stuff of fairytales”), rugby coach Eddie Jones (“measured and thoughtful … a leader in every way”) and the ubiquitous Trevor Noah (“His story mirrors the nation’s; in its trials and tribulations and also in its triumph against all odds…”).

Other newspapers here have so far ignored the book, which leaves me wondering, albeit briefly, why Rupert Murdoch’s News UK titles should have given Rise the sort of publicity normally associated with the highbrow memoirs of prominent statesmen. But no matter.

On Saturday, The Times Magazine carried an in-depth interview with Kolisi which ran to almost 3 000 words, while the newspaper’s sports pages published extracts from Rise, specifically focusing on the Springboks’ backroom strategies and the on-field tactics that contributed to their 2019 World Cup victory. Not a comfortable read, then, for England supporters.

The next day, The Sunday Times published two further extracts. The lesser of these dealt with Kolisi’s alcohol-fuelled personal problems at the time of the 2015 World Cup in Japan. But the main piece was an eye-opening account of a harsh childhood in surroundings of extreme deprivation and mindless violence. It began: 

“I was born on the last day of apartheid, in June 1991, in a township called Zwide, just outside the city of Port Elizabeth. It was a typical township, the kind of place that looks permanently half-finished. Traffic would weave around potholes deep enough to break axles, pavements were often compacted earth rather than tarmac. Some houses were made of stone or concrete and others from tin, which is a terrible material for building: in the summer it keeps none of the heat out and in the winter it keeps none of the warmth in. Toilets were usually outside and often shared: sometimes the sewers ran in the open alongside the roads, and planks of wood would act as makeshift pontoons…”

The last day of apartheid…___STEADY_PAYWALL___

We should pause for a moment to consider that. Let it sink in.

Thirty long years have passed since the scrapping of the Nationalists’ race laws and statutory discrimination. And yet, as is the case in so many, many parts of the country, very little has changed for the residents of Zwide. A few minutes on the internet reveals the usual grim glimpses of life in the township. 

Police were said to be looking for the gunmen who shot dead a disabled man and his son in their home last month. According to the Herald, a motive for the killings had yet to be established. The week before, Zwide’s residents were on a rabies alert; one man told Health-E News that he’d been bitten by an infected dog but was fortunate to have survived as he’d been quick to get treatment at a hospital. Then there’s the everyday grinding poverty, exacerbated by the Covid lockdown. 

“It’s hard to explain hunger, proper hunger, to people who’ve never experienced it,” Kolisi writes. “Hunger is not just being hungry, the brief sensation of discomfort which lasts only a few hours until the next meal. Being hungry is easy and commonplace. 

“Hunger is different. It’s all-consuming. It was all I could feel and all I could think about. My stomach seemed to twist in on itself, and the more I tried to ignore the pain there the worse it got. I had no energy so sleep sometimes came easily, but that only hid the hunger rather than cured it, and in the small hours I’d jerk awake involuntarily and the agony was worse than ever.”

Kolisi hardly knew his parents. They separated when he was very young, and he was raised by his grandmother. He found a home of sorts with the African Bombers, a township rugby club he joined when he was eight. Three years later, Grey High School, impressed with his rugby skills, offered him a full scholarship. It was a life-changing opportunity — but being a pupil at an elite boarding school came with its own problems. During the holidays he’d return to Zwide, where he was now reviled and mocked as an outsider, and he resorted to using his fists to deal with those who taunted him.

Schooling done, he moved to Cape Town, aged 18, to start his rugby career. One afternoon, walking to his lodgings at his agent’s home, he was set upon by armed security guards who forced him to his knees in the street. “There were no questions asked,” Kolisi says. “They put a gun against my head. I started crying. I just thought, ‘This is it. I’m gone. I’m going to die. Right here, right now.’”

A woman had just been robbed and Kolisi was a black youth in “a nice white neighbourhood”, as The Times put it, and this was grounds enough for the heavy-handed treatment. Residents ran from their homes to gawp at the commotion. Kolisi tried to explain that he was living in the area and not some criminal transient. Then he spotted someone he recognised, his agent’s neighbour, a man who had seen Kolisi come and go several times in the course of the previous weeks. He called out to him. “I was like, ‘You know me! Just tell them! Tell them I would never do anything silly!’” The man ignored Kolisi, and “just looked down at the ground”.

It eventually became clear that Kolisi was not the culprit. The security men withdrew without a word of apology. The onlookers drifted back into their homes. Kolisi remained in the street where he’d been forced to his knees, thinking about how close he had been to death — and about how he’d been defined by the colour of his skin. The incident is etched into his memory, and he thinks about it. Often. “The sun was out,” he says. “The sky was blue. It was a beautiful day. I will never forget it.”

More abuse came after his marriage to a white woman. Kolisi told The Times: “People saying how disgusting we were, how horrible it was. People telling my wife that she was a waste of white sperm, of white genes.” Some black South Africans accused him of self-loathing. “That I didn’t want to have kids that looked like me and all that kind of stuff. Some of it did hurt. But I know who I am.”

Many others will shortly get to know Kolisi as well. Rise looks set to be this year’s must-have Christmas stocking stuffer for rugby fans. The November internationals should boost sales as well; they get underway in a few weeks, and hopefully the Springboks will turn out against Wales, Scotland and England with the discipline and flair we saw in their victory over the All Blacks on Saturday. 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we look forward to the by-now mandatory comments on the negativity of the South African game from the usual culprits. In particular, we anticipate renewed warnings about rugby’s obsolescence thanks to Bok brutality from former England coach Sir Clive Woodward. His sort of snide condescension is especially welcome in post-match analyses. 

We shouldn’t gripe. A good news South African story is always welcome. However, thoughts persist about hopes dashed and what could have been. 

When the Springboks won the 2019 World Cup, the BBC’s Andrew Harding visited Zwide to find out what the victory and Kolisi’s captaincy meant for the township. “This is a Mandela Mandela moment,” a joyful resident told him at one celebration. To drive home the point, producers superimposed a photograph of that moment in 1995 when Nelson Mandela, wearing a Bok jersey, handed the Webb Ellis Trophy to Francois Pienaar. 

The Boks took the title again in 2007. But by 2019 all the optimism and hope embodied in that initial “Madiba magic” moment had long since vanished.

Ben Machell, who interviewed Kolisi for The Times, writes that it is tempting to frame the captain’s story as an “inspirational” narrative. “But the way [Kolisi] tells it … his life seems less fairytale and more a lens through which to examine a South Africa that is still, in so many ways, beset by dysfunction.” As Kolisi tells him: “Inequality. Poverty. Unemployment. Corruption. Gender-based violence. My mum experienced that when I was growing up. And there was nothing I could do to help her.”

It is perhaps not in the remit of sports writers to critically unpack the reasons for such dysfunction. Machell, not unexpectedly, draws on the overly familiar and well-worn when he writes that Kolisi is the first black player to captain the Springboks, “an institution that for so long served as a pillar of white Afrikaner pride and identity”. 

But, tellingly, he also points out point that Kolisi is the first World Cup-winning captain to directly reference his country’s domestic problems in a victory speech. “On an average day in South Africa, [Kolisi] notes in Rise, “58 people will be murdered, 114 will be raped and 200 000 will go to sleep homeless…”

At 30, Kolisi states he can’t see himself playing rugby for many more seasons. Asked if he’d consider a career in politics, he laughed and told Machell: “I don’t know if I’d be able to be a politician. I don’t know. But never say never.”

I personally believe he should steer clear of politics. Mucking about in a loose maul with an unhinged Australian pack on a muddy pitch seems far more agreeable than degrading oneself in that dirty game. 

But this is something readers may wish to take up with Kolisi themselves. He will be signing copies of Rise at Sandton City’s Centre Court on Friday morning, from 9am to 10am. Admission is by RSVP only: [email protected]. Entrance will be limited to comply with social distancing protocols. Attendees will be required to sanitise, socially distance and wear masks. 

Cognitive dissonance

Like many of us, I’m deeply disappointed that, despite all our efforts, Carl Niehaus has expressed no interest whatsoever in rehabilitation. A recent proposal that he seek help from the good burghers of the village-state of Orania appears to have been ignored. 

Stubborn as ever, Carl insists on going his own way as the blowhard of radical economic transformation; the temporary suspension of his ANC membership has lapsed, and he gleefully states he is once again free to bother South Africans on behalf of the party. He boasts he has a letter to this effect from no less a person than acting secretary-general and chief gorgon Jessie Duarte.

This is sad. There’s no denying the enthusiasm, which is touching, but the delusion that he is welcome to rejoin the fold is unsettling. He so fails to understand that he is not wanted by the ruling criminal elite. He was booted out of Luthuli House and told to voetsek. The official reason for his ousting was his stated intention to lay charges of theft, fraud and corruption against his employers. He is naturally challenging his dismissal. But, and whatever the outcome of this action, the fact remains that no-one likes him. He is an embarrassment — even to the ANC. And that says a lot.

Membership of the party is no big deal. Even dead folk can join, and they very often do in great numbers. But getting on the ANC payroll is another matter entirely. It may be a gruelling, backstabbing business, the hardest work these people may ever know, but once ensconced, well, it’s a lifer’s dream, a cushy ride drawing a salary for doing little more than wearing stupid clothes. You’d need to be an exceptional sort of failure to lose that gig, but cometh the hour…

Carl’s only hope may now be the Noupoort Christian Care Centre. Those who have spent time at this remote eastern Karoo rehabilitation clinic report that it is rough going, and there has been awed talk of sandpaper and thorny plants to treat sex addiction. On the plus side, they seem to get results. Relapses are rare; dope fiends and the like would rather die than return to Noupoort. 

Staff at the facility nevertheless face an arduous task if Carl is to be returned an asset to the community. Enemas will need to be especially excoriating to cleanse him of diverse vapours, malodorous bile and other malignancies. Treatment may even include leeches, although this could be traumatic for the little suckers.

The ghost of Christmas Future

Glory be, but it does appear that, from tomorrow, October 7, South Africa will finally be removed from the UK’s punitive international travel “red list”. Visitors from SA will no longer be forced to quarantine for ten days in some shabby hotel on the outskirts of London before moving on. The policy greatly angered the beleaguered South African hospitality and tourism sector who argued the steep cost of the mandatory quarantine — £2 285 for solo travellers — effectively banned travel between the two countries. 

The relaxation of the restrictions is also good news for us expats. We are, thanks largely to Brexit, in the middle of what is referred to as an “Effing crisis”. That’s EFF for Energy, Fuel and Food. Which are in such short supply that Britain Trump has been reduced to “panic lying”, as Private Eye puts it. By all means pop over for a visit this December. But do bring along tins of cured ham, bottles of the better Spesbona port and some candles to cheer up the place. We’d be most grateful…