On 19 July, Siya Kolisi made a speech about the BlackLivesMatter (BLM) Movement that became a topic of national conversation. Nearly a month later, it has still not been given serious analytical attention. Sadly, the speech demonstrates how racialism ruins all that is good.
To understand the tragedy of Kolisi’s BLM speech one has to understand the greatness that preceded it. How well do you really know Kolisi’s life story?
BLM Ruins the Work Ethic
Kolisi was an extraordinarily hard-working child. He hawked veggies, made bricks, and worked as a barman at 16. He is a perfect example of what Scots call ‘the work ethic’ and South Koreans call Seamaul Undong – the three-step formula to go from rags to riches: work, work, work.
It works. When most of South Korea was significantly worse-off than Zwide township, whence Kolisi hails, the Seamaul Undong slogan was: ‘Do not eat to eat, but eat to work. If you don’t like to work, do not eat. Work at least four hours for each meal’. South Korea is now one of the richest countries in the world and no one goes hungry.
Kolisi could have used his national platform to tell all South African youth, but especially poor youth, that discipline was the key to his success and that if poor youngsters want to make it, they should work like he did.
Instead, Kolisi says the fact that he worked as a child is a crying shame. Looking back, he says, it makes him feel that ‘my life didn’t matter since I was a little kid’.
Kolisi undermines the harshly disciplined aspect of his life, but that is not where it ends.
BLM Ruins Family
According to Jeremy Daniel’s biography, Siya Kolisi: Against All Odds, Kolisi’s mother was 16 when he was born, so he went to live with his grandmother, Nolulamile Kolisi. ‘Money was desperately tight’.
Kolisi’s grandmother would sometimes go hungry, saving the food for him, and she worked hard as a domestic to make ends meet.
But it wasn’t all gloom. At four, Kolisi learned the haka from TV and he would organize a group of friends to perform it for his father occasionally. His father taught him to love rugby.
Kolisi’s grandmother is described as a laughing, loving woman and his father as distant but key to Kolisi’s rugby life. ‘The big games at Dan Qeqe Stadium were occasions when Siya might see his father’, when ‘they would sit together and comment on the [rugby] action, and these were rare and precious times when Siya could really bond with his father’.
Now Kolisi sees things differently. ‘I felt my life didn’t matter since I was a little kid, growing up in the townships. My mentality was all about surviving from the moment I was born.’ He blames his grandmother for merely keeping him ‘motivated’ and ‘not to encourage me to strive and be the best in what I want to do and be the best and follow my dreams’.
As bizarrely cold as he now is to his grandmother for failing to inspire him sufficiently ‘to strive and be the best’ he is even colder to his father, who gets no mention in a speech in which he insists ‘I felt my life didn’t matter’ since birth. What about bonding over rugby games with dad, Siya, didn’t that make you feel special?
BLM Ruins Friendship
Lulama Magxaki, one of Kolisi’s primary school teachers in Zwide township, said ‘he loved to laugh’ and ‘made those around him laugh’. Kolisi is described as having ‘a special bond’ with his half-brother, Liyema.
Kolisi joined the ‘African Bombers’ in Zwide at the Dan Qeqe Stadium, a club that had been around since 1954 and became ‘the first to arrive and the last to leave’. Zolani Faku was his team hero. Eric Songwiqi, ‘a father-figure’ who coached the African Bombers, gave Kolisi his first rugby boots and his big break into Eastern Province junior rugby circa grade 6.
The special ‘eye’ Eric kept over Kolisi, the admiration of his friends who haka-ed with him on the streets or laughed with him at Emsengeni primary school, his fellow ‘Bombers’ and even the love of his little half-brother, Liyema, are all absent from his BLM speech.
Now Kolisi pretends all he thought about was ‘survival’ with not a moment’s joy or distraction or attention from others. ‘I felt I didn’t matter’, he says, from birth to the moment he got a scholarship to a majority white school.
BLM Ruins Respect
As Daniels tells it, Kolisi’s big break was at a junior inter-provincial competition where Kolisi’s team went down 30-0 in the first half. Kolisi, far from ‘not mattering’ to anyone, as he now portrays it, made the passionate half-time speech that ‘fired up’ the boys, including his white friend Nick Holton, who attended Grey Junior. Right after the speech, they scored a try, with Kolisi and Nick leading the move.
Coach Eric, that watchful father-figure, noted with relief that the Grey school staff were ‘taking notes’ after the try.
As a result of his efforts that day, Kolisi won the first Vincent Mai bursary to Grey Junior. But getting a full ride to Grey High would depend on his all-round performance, on being the kind of person who mattered and was accepted by the community.
Writes Daniels: ‘His easy-going nature and infectious laugh made him popular with peers and teachers’. So he got a full ride to Grey High.
But, now, in his BLM speech, Kolisi not only disrespects his friends and family by pretending no one ever made him feel like he ‘mattered’ before Grey, he also ridicules those who gave him great educational opportunities at Grey.
Kolisi says his friend Nick ‘had to teach me English each and every single day’, implying the school’s failure to help left him feeling ‘stupid’.
In fact, teacher Adie Mukheibir was assigned to help with remedial English lessons for Kolisi. Nor was he alone. Two other African Bombers from Zwide township were at Grey with Kolisi in remedial English, fellows Kolisi neglects to mention while describing a ‘bubble’ within which only whiteness was accepted at Grey.
BLM Ruins Introspection
In his BLM speech, Kolisi says ‘I had to conform to the culture to feel accepted at Grey’. This may be true, it may even be a good thing to conform to a good culture of excellence at boarding school. But Kolisi not only renders this shameful in retrospect, he fails to mention a telling detail about his own role.
The other Zwide boys did not like to wear their Grey uniforms in the township on weekends ‘because it was perceived as [implying] “you are too good for us’’’. But Kolisi did not mind seeming ‘too good’.
‘When Siya went back home on weekends, he liked to be dropped off wearing his Grey Junior uniform’. According to high school coach Dean Carelse, who personally drove the boys home to Zwide township, that habit persisted through Grey High.
Kolisi surely cannot pretend that the school’s ‘culture’ was forcing him to show off his uniform in the township on weekends too?
Yes, he can. When making a BLM speech, nothing is impossible, because facts don’t matter as long as you render a narrative of victimisation.
Never forget that Kolisi was Great
Ever since 2002, when then-president Thabo Mbeki said it would be better for the Springboks to lose for several years than select too many white players, the game has been under attack.
In 2007, Jake White was fired for winning the World Cup with insufficient melanin (or for not choosing Luke Watson, of the Bosasa Watsons), a blow whose shock was felt in rugby for years to come.
In 2015, a court bid emerged to try and stop the Springboks from travelling to the World Cup because the team was ‘too white’ and had lost to Japan. The next year, then sports minister Fikile Mbalula banned South Africa from hosting international tournaments to punish ‘whiteness’ and the loss to Italy. The next year, Ashwin Willemse falsely accused co-hosts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett of racism before storming off set on live television, and the Boks slipped to the worst ranking ever.
In the meantime, administrators repeatedly issued race quotas at national level. When Rassie Erasmus was appointed head Springbok coach in 2018, he said race quotas were a ‘key performance indicator’. But then something strange happened.
Former captains Eben Etzebeth and Warren Whitely got injured, so Kolisi was made national backup captain on the back of his captaincy at the Stormers franchise. There were many question marks, but one settled them all.
Kolisi was asked for his view on race quotas for national sport, and he shocked the chattering classes by coming out strongly against them. He insisted that if he underperformed, he himself should be dropped from the team.
Personally, I ululated. This was welcomed by most South Africans too. IRR surveys showed at the time that 80% of black South Africans opposed race quotas for national sport. Finally, a Springbok captain just said what we all thought – only choose the best.
This unnerved the race merchants in politics and professional media who make their money and derive their power from dividing South Africans against one another by race. In the meanwhile, Kolisi played excellent rugby, mostly as a workhorse.
Throughout 2019, further attempts to discredit and distract the team were made by race merchants, but Kolisi’s defensive wall held as strong as our line against England in the second-half of the World Cup Final.
In my view, Kolisi’s opposition to national sports quotas was a major part of the psychological background that explains the confidence that carried the team to World Cup victory for a third time.
BLM Ruins Victory
But in his BLM moment, Kolisi undoes the good work. He says that it was only after his own and Erasmus’s appointment that all Springboks ‘felt valued’. According to the logic of Kolisi’s BLM speech, Bryan Habana was not ‘valued’, nor was Ricky Januarie, nor the Ndungane brothers, nor Guthro Steenkamp, nor Breyton Paulse, to name a few of the heroes I grew up celebrating.
It was only after his own appointment that ‘we felt valued, we could sing’, but not before.
And now, rather than representing all South Africans who love the ‘green and gold’, Kolisi talks as if he only represents black ‘township boys’, while white players only inspire other whites.
This is how you snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is what BLM does. It breaks people’s minds, it makes the victim narrative so seductive that a grown man will renounce his own work ethic, slur his own grandmother, ignore his own father, forget about his first coach, disregard his friends, deride his school, disrespect his patrons and spurn the love that shaped him ‘since birth’.