Awesome Springbok foursome are once more putting smiles on rugby fans faces
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DURING the Springboks’ recent seismic struggle with the British & Irish Lions, there was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the pride this country should feel about this special sports team — the heroes that two years ago gave our troubled country such unbridled joy.
As half-time approached in the second Test match, the tourists had laid siege to the Springbok try-line and were about to seize the initiative in what had been an almighty arm wrestle. A chip kick from Irishman Conor Murray drifted tantalisingly into the in-goal area and his countryman, Robbie Henshaw plucked the ball out of the air and simply had to fall to the turf for a score that would have thrust the course of the battle in favour of the Lions.
Instead, he was enveloped by a rush of green that was Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am, the Springbok captain and vice-captain. They flung themselves underneath him — with scant regard for body and limb — to valiantly prevent a certain score.
In rugby, coaches metaphorically exhort their players to “put their bodies on the line” but this tandem effort by the Springbok leadership was a physical embodiment of it.
The Springboks went on to win the game — Am was the Man of the Match — and then the deciding third Test match a week later, with Kolisi declared the Player of the Series.
Supporting acts for Kolisi and Am were sensational try scorers in Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, and if this sounds familiar, it is because this foursome was reprising their headline act of 2019 when they were in the vanguard of the Boks’ World Cup win in Japan, where Mapimpi and Kolbe scored in the final against England.
If Nelson Mandela had been alive, he would have beamed in appreciation as the Boks’ series win over the Lions — the next best accolade to winning a World Cup — once more put a smile on the face of a nation rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic and civil unrest.
It is perhaps such a moment that Madiba had in mind when in 1994 he graciously allowed the Springbok emblem to continue. Until then, the Springbok rugby team had been reviled by most South Africans because it was a symbol of white supremacy. But 27 years later, after Mandela’s magnanimous gesture of reconciliation, all of South Africa proudly owns the Springboks.
It borders on the bizarre that the Springbok rugby team, once the pariah of South African sport, is now the torchbearer for change in our sport.
While the Boks and the Lions were waging war in July and August, cricket in this country was once again playing out an unfortunate chapter, with the SJN Hearings into racism in the sport unearthing some depressing home truths.
Cricket, in particular, seems to be woefully behind rugby in terms of genuine transformation.
But with rugby, it is not just a case of equal opportunities allowing for the likes of Kolisi and Am to excel on the field of play, it is what these men are doing off it with the platform fame has given them.
And their platform is a significant one. When the Boks won the World Cup, they were major blips on the Hollywood radar, with high-profile celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey singing their praises while rap star Jay-Z , the founder of entertainment giants
Roc Nation, signed up Kolisi, Kolbe and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira.
And United Nations Secretary-General Antonia Guterres appointed Kolisi as a global ambassador for the Spotlight Initiative, which aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women by 2030.
Last year, when sport was put on hold because of the pandemic, Kolisi travelled the country feeding the starving via his Kolisi Foundation. With his wife, Rachel, they assisted a range of distressed South Africans — from rape victims to innocents paralysed in shooting incidents.
The slogan for the Kolisi Foundation is “Remember the One, One by One”.
He explains: “We carry this close to our hearts as it reminds us that every person matters, no matter their situation. We want to help those people in really desperate situations but also those whose problems may not be as bad by comparison.”
On gender-based violence, Kolisi says: “Men are the problem. There are a lot of things that we need to unlearn in terms of how we treat women. When I was younger, nobody told me that it was wrong. When I saw the abuse in my community and even in my own home, there was no-one to say ‘this is fundamentally wrong’.”
Mapimpi, like Kolisi, grew up in an Eastern Cape township. His childhood was far from easy — his sister and brother died at an early age — and he was exposed to violence against women.
“I've seen it happen to friends and family,” Mapimpi says. “It affected me deeply because when I was growing up there was no senior male role model in my family and I didn't have the power to stop what was happening. Some boys
grow up to become men who think that abusing women and children is normal but I am now in a position where I can tell everyone how wrong it is.”
On Mandela Day last year, Mapimpi launched his #Mapimpi67 campaign aimed at eradicating GBV.
When the Springboks were at the World Cup in Japan, 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered in Cape Town and Mapimpi was moved to make a statement to a global rugby audience.
After scoring a try in a match against Japan, he held up a wrist strapping that read: “Nene RIP”.
He said at the time: “I could feel the pain of her family because I know what it felt like. I wrote her name on my wrist to show that we Springboks were aware of what was going on back home and that this tragedy affects all of us.”
Kolbe grew up in Kraaifontein near Cape Town where he was exposed to gangsterism and drug use. He once was caught in a crossfire between gangs and literally had to run for his life.
“If it was not for sport, I would have probably become one of the unfortunates who made the wrong decisions,” Kolbe says. “Rugby guided me away from trouble and helped me make wise decisions.”
Kolbe spent lockdown back in South Africa last year (away from his rugby commitments in France) and was hands-on in outreach work.
“It is so worth it to see the joy on the faces of young kids; it is heart-breaking to see the suffering in the eyes of the elders,” he said.
Kolbe, Mapimpi, Am, Kolisi … These are not just rugby heroes, they are men of conviction who get their hands dirty in helping their fellow South Africans.