Siya Kolisi and the problem of black double consciousness

Mugabe Ratshikuni writes on World Cup Rugby Finals, the Springboks, and their captain

The Springboks are in the Rugby World Cup final. This is an astounding feat given where we were only a couple of years ago, so credit must be given to Rassie Erasmus and his team for having turned things around and made the nation proud. Having started a process and believing in it even when the chips were down they are now on the brink of immortality, because in rugby mad South Africa nothing lifts the national mood more than a Springbok Rugby World Cup victory.

Some of us remember the iconic Rugby World Cup victory of 1995 like it was yesterday. In my view this is still the best Springbok World Cup win. This is not on the basis of silly “Rainbow Nation” sentiments, but rather because in 1995 the Boks beat Australia, France and New Zealand on their way to their victory, whereas in 2007 they only really beat one strong team, England (twice) on their way to victory. This team, if they win, will only have only beaten Wales and England, with the first game loss to New Zealand having guaranteed them an easier draw in the tournament.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup winning Bok team consisted of a spine of the brilliant, Kitch Christie coached, Transvaal team which swept all comers in winning the old Lion Cup, the Currie Cup and of course the inaugural Topsport Super Ten Series in an epic final against Auckland in 1993.

As Springbok coach, Christie took the core of this all conquering team and led the Springboks to a famous victory in 1995. The 2007 team meanwhile consisted of a spine of players developed by Blue Bulls coach, Heyneke Meyer, whose team had won the 2007 Super Rugby title, after that sensational 82nd minute try by Brian Habana, which silenced all my Sharks mates and gave me bragging rights even up to this day. That brilliant Bulls generation did not just form the core of Jake White’s 2007 Bok team, but also went on to become a dynasty under Frans Ludeke, winning two further Super Rugby titles.

The current Bok team has no such characteristics and no dynastic pretences as yet, but they have the opportunity to make history and bring the nation closer together in a way none of the two former World Cup winning teams could. In race conscious South Africa - where even sporting preferences are still highly racialised with rugby still being largely seen as a white sport and football (soccer), a black sport - the image of a black Springbok captain lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy will do wonders for the fading claims of “Rainbow Nationism”.

Amidst the euphoria of the Boks having reached another Rugby World Cup final the feel good story has been about captain Siya Kolisi, a black South African who watched the previous Bok world cup victory in a tavern in Port Elizabeth because he did not have a TV at home. The quintessential “Rainbow Nation”, South African story, of a poor black South African who fought against the odds to come good and conquer the world.

It’s undoubtedly an astounding and inspirational story, albeit unsustainable in a society where the majority of South Africans are poor and black and have to overcome insurmountable odds to attain any measure of success. We can’t build a successful country, a winning country, on exceptionalism, because it is just that, the exception and not the norm. (I am not saying we should not adopt and learn from the “best” in any way in case I’m misunderstood here).

The Siya Kolisi story, whilst being positive and uplifting, should cause us to reflect a little bit deeper on inequality and the type of society we are trying to build. Is it correct, that we have a country where young black people in so many different fields, careers, sectors of society have to overcome so many hoops just to achieve their dreams, only to be further questioned when they get there about their competency, about whether they deserve to be there or are there as tokens etc?

In fact, by the time a black South African reaches any measure of success, given how many man-made obstacles they come across along the way, instead of challenging their competency and questioning their right to be where they are, we should be marvelling at their superhuman feat, refusing to allow structural and systemic inequality which constantly has them on the periphery of society to keep them from achieving their dreams.

Whilst pondering all this, I was reminded of a concept attributed to the brilliant 20th century African American intellectual, W.E.B Du Bois, the concept of double-consciousness. In the words of Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In these poignant words, Du Bois describes black people like Siya Kolisi’s unique sense of alienation as they pursue their dreams in a world that is often defined by the “other.”

Kolisi has succeeded in a rugby world that is still mostly considered “white”, just like many black professionals, academics, business people etc are expected to succeed in a world that is still in reality (again, I know I will anger people in saying this but we must speak the truth as it is, before we transform it to what it ought to be) very white dominated.

Within the perspective of this world that is still (whether perceived or real, you decide) very “white” in culture and outlook, blacks find themselves pursuing their dreams whilst constantly having to deal with this double-consciousness.

This speaks into the fact that they constantly have to view themselves not just from their own unique outlook, but more pertinently from that of the “other.” They find themselves bound by perceptions and stereotypes of the “other” in pursuit of their dreams, having to prove that they are not corrupt, inept, tokens.

They are caught up in this environment which only affirms and accepts them on the basis of their “respectability” in the eyes of the “other.” The fact that Du Bois highlighted this phenomenon in the early parts of the 19th century, should give us comfort that this is not a uniquely South African struggle, but rather the struggle of the black person throughout the course of history.

So, in celebrating a phenomenal sporting achievement by Kolisi and in willing the Springboks onto what would be a “victory for the ages” in the Rugby World Cup final and in celebrating what would be a rare unifying moment should the Boks win (holding thumbs), we should enjoy the moment that will allow us to escape the dreary reality of our every day lives, as all good sporting achievements should, but in the back of our minds remind ourselves that we are still a work in progress as a people, as a nation and that there is much that needs to be done to ensure that the country can give the many Siya Kolisis of this world, in all corners of South Africa, a better shot at success in life.

This type of South Africa would have Du Bois’ understanding of equality when he said, “the equality in political, industrial, social life which modern men must have in order to live, is not to be confused with sameness. On the contrary, in our case, it is rather insistent upon the right of diversity; upon the right of a human being to be a man even if he does not wear the same cut of vest, the same curl of hair or the same colour of skin. Human equality does not even entail, as it is sometimes said, absolute equality of opportunity; for certainly the natural inequalities of inherent genius and varying gift makes this a dubious phrase. But there is more and more clearly recognised minimum of opportunity and maximum of freedom to be, to move, to think.” Then we can all sing the tune, “hier kom die Bokke, hier kom die Bokke…” in unison.#GoBokke.

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government. He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.