Siya Kolisi: Black and white issues in living, lurid colour
Comments by the Springbok captain leave him stuck deep in the sticky stuff of the transformation debate
Transformation is a thorny topic that occupies the difficult grey area in SA’s black and white society. In rugby it continues to be a badly navigated minefield on and off the field.
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s comments regarding former president Nelson Mandela and quotas, even if they were heartfelt and honest, have only helped light the tinder in a highly flammable matter.
Firstly, there is the significant misuse of the word “merit” and how it has come to exclude a large number of very good black players while their mediocre white counterparts have been allowed to thrive.
The application of “merit” is subjective: Kolisi himself was a victim of this when former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer deemed Marcell Coetzee to be better than him. Kolisi never started a Test under Meyer’s tenure between 2013 and 2015. Yet under Allister Coetzee and Johan “Rassie” Erasmus he has started every game he was available for since 2016.
Secondly, there is a lack of historical, social and political context in Kolisi’s comments. He wasn’t misguided in what he said about Mandela and quotas but there has to be a current and past background that informed that opinion.
Former SA Rugby Union president Louis Luyt took Mandela to court 21 years ago because the president set up a commission to investigate alleged racism, graft and nepotism in the sport. It understandably still rankles with black people. Kolisi’s comments do not sit well with those who suffered in the game because of their skin colour despite the transition into the democratic dispensation.
Quotas (targets now) were and still are necessary to ensure black players who belong at elite rugby levels are given opportunities to show their talents. The targets at provincial age-group tournaments have allowed black players to make significant impacts at under-13, under-16 and under-18 levels before the professional ranks deal with them.
Springbok coach Erasmus did not meet his 45% target last year, a matter that can and will split SA’s already parochial support groups.
One also needs to understand Kolisi was one of the best schoolboy rugby players in his era when he was at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth. Chances are he could have played for any other first XV in SA at the time – he made the SA Schools team, after all. That is not a path every black player has had and it could be something that informs Kolisi’s thinking.
Kolisi has entered highly contested terrain that needs significant social and political tact. His comments lacked this and he needs to educate himself from a socioeconomic and political perspective. As a black Springbok captain he not only carries the hopes and aspirations of a black nation that has long been excluded from the summit of a white-dominated game, but he is also expected to understand and relate their experiences for the privileged few who had the freeway to the top instead of the gravel road.
Unfortunately for Kolisi, these comments, regardless of how honest they were, will follow him wherever he goes. The timing, with 2019 being a World Cup year and the jury firmly out on his on-field leadership skills, is not to his favour.
In another time and another era, Kolisi's views may not have held much water but SA Rugby and its professional playing echelons are still viewed by many as inaccessible and unfriendly to black players. It is truly between a rock and hard place that Kolisi finds himself in now.