THE BLOG
01/06/2018 15:07 SAST | Updated 01/06/2018 15:37 SAST

Siya Kolisi Is Captain Not Because He Is Black, But Despite Being Black

Some advice for the new Springbok rugby captain... which includes the imperative to have fun.

Siya Kolisi celebrates after scoring a try against France on June 17 2017, in Durban.
Gianluigi Guercia/ AFP/ Getty Images
Siya Kolisi celebrates after scoring a try against France on June 17 2017, in Durban.

Siya Kolisi's appointment as Springbok captain is not a favour to him or the black population.

There are those who would try to cloud his achievements with the mischievous idea that he a product of a "quota system" that they equate with inferiority.

The mischief here, advocated by conservatives like Gareth van Onselen, seeks to attach a stigma to black players who have benefited from the transformation policy. For some reason in South Africa, we have framed and perpetuated a racist narrative that suggests transformation and excellence are contrasting notions — as though one cannot be excellent while being black.

It's absurd that we have indulged the assertions of satirists and commentators who manufactured the offensive lie that talent and transformation are mutually exclusive. Frankly, Kolisi's race didn't do what talent couldn't. If we are honest, his race and social class have probably been a burden in this predominately white sport.

The obstacles he had to overcome have been enormous.

Do not be ashamed of being labeled a quota. It does not demean you or lessen your obvious talent.

Kolisi grew up in Zwide, an improvised ghetto in Port Elizabeth that is not exactly known for its riches in sports infrastructure. He probably relied on charity for rugby kit, and his working-class father couldn't give him the same support his white counterparts received. The loss of his mother at a young age meant the child had to become the parent, like in many black families.

With all the systematic socioeconomic hurdles in his path, his talent was able to carry him to this historic moment.

Kolisi is not captain because he is black. In a predominately white and untransformed sport, he is captain despite being black.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the quota system, and transformation in general, in uptight self-righteous conservative circles. Some believe, ignorantly, that the black population is advocating for transformation because our talents aren't enough. That is nonsense.

Firstly, the quota system is a response to the systematic exclusion of black talent. The quota and the transformation agenda imposes on sports administrators the obligation to discover talent beyond the comforts of leafy, white suburbs. Kolisi, like Makhaya Ntini, was not discovered within the traditional apartheid sporting reservoirs.

Secondly, the quota system and legislated transformation targets seek to counter the prejudices and a mindset that can overlook the quality performance of black players. Being a "quota" is not an indictment on black talent, it's an indictment on the system's inability to be fair and just.

Kolisi himself has been a victim of this mindset. After being overlooked, he was given a debut against Scotland in 2013 in Nelspruit. Coming off the bench, he played remarkably well and earned man of the match award. All that did not prevent the then Springbok coach from subbing him in the very next game.

Which brings me to my third point: South Africa has a talent backlog. For a protracted period, a small section of white men competed in an exclusionary little corner and had the audacity to refer to themselves as a national team. Competition, even internally, improves the quality of a national team. Quota systems must inject all the talents of South Africa into sporting codes to enhance the competition and ultimately improve the quality of the teams.

WIKUS DE WET via Getty Images
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and team mates arrives at the Jabulani Technical High School for a rugby clinic coaching session with Aspiring rugby players from nearby high schools on 31 May 2018 in Soweto. (Photo by WIKUS DE WET / AFP) (Photo credit should read WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images)

I had the pleasure of meeting a young Kolisi around 2009. I was young myself, and deeply involved in the nocturnal and extracurricular activities of youth. If I knew that would be our last encounter, I would have offered this advice:

1. Do not be ashamed of being labelled a quota. It does not demean you or lessen your obvious talent.

2. Always be at your best and know that you will be held to a different standard. Know that your best form will be average to prejudiced eyes. Do not be defined by them.

3. Expect to be hated by some, but rise above it and champion the ideas of decency and humanity that are enshrined in our Constitution.

4. Be the captain for all South Africa, while appreciating that you beat the system and are, therefore, a symbol of black excellence and resilience.

5. Use sport to unify us. Show South Africans that we are stronger together, especially when we pursue fairness and social justice.

And lastly, have fun! Enjoy your moment as the temporary "king of the mountain".

* Tshwete is writing in his personal capacity. He is also a long-suffering Stormers supporter. — Editor.