Siya Kolisi: ‘My sin was exposed – he told me I needed to stop drinking’

“Sometimes you don’t know how to speak,” Siya Kolisi says simply as he reveals his often hidden struggle to cope with a life that has been challenging and extreme. As a boy in the townships Kolisi endured acute hunger and witnessed terrible violence and even death.

He was a gifted rugby player, 하나, and a scholarship took him to one of white South Africa’s most privileged schools. After years of struggle and hard work, Kolisi became the Springboks’ first black captain in their troubled rugby history. 에 2019, 그 led them to World Cup glory and he was venerated for his role on and off the field.

Yet as he admits now, 그리고 his moving new book, Kolisi always battled to articulate how he really felt. He tried to escape his confusion and hurt by drinking, going to strip clubs, watching pornography and losing himself in a hazy maze.

“I didn’t know how to speak for a long time,”그는 말한다. “I’m learning as I go along with my wife. We’re five years into our marriage and I’m still learning how to have a proper conversation with her. That’s why I put in [the book] the things I did in the past, some of the vulnerability, so it can tell the true story.

“Let’s say I’m someone’s role model. The kid will think: ‘I want to be like you one day.’ But he doesn’t know the struggles you face. No one tells him there’s temptation – alcohol, drugs, all these things are available to you.

“I wish I’d had a mentor that told me you’re going to face these challenges and you must be prepared to fight them. I had to go through the hard way. Now I want to make sure the next kid and his family can read the book and think: ‘How will we prevent that? How will we prepare you for that kind of life?’

“Some people also know how I was in the past and I’m not a saint at all. I’m a sinner trying to be the best he can be every day.”

When he remembers the intense hunger he felt almost every day in the black township of Zwide, in Port Elizabeth, Kolisi describes it as “all consuming … the more I tried to ignore the pain, the worse it got”.

While he highlights the laughter and excitement he also experienced in Zwide, 그는 ~였다 12 when he watched a man being stoned to death.

On a Zoom call from Australia, where he was preparing to lead South Africa to an epic 31-29 victory over New Zealand, I ask Kolisi if it has been painful revisiting those desperate days. “It’s tough to relive some memories. I remember losing my grandmother and her dying in my arms. She was the closest person to me and I was not even 10 살이에요. But at the same time it’s a beautiful thing. I’m the person I am today because of every sacrifice she made and I’m glad I was the one who held her as she died. I see so much beauty in it.”

Kolisi remembers looking at photographs of his mother when she was young – before she gave birth to him at 18. He describes her as “beautiful and, most of all, unscarred. I never saw her look like that because her face changed so much from the different men beating her up … when she died she had scars all over her face.”

When he was five years old, and playing in the streets, he picked up a couple of his mother’s teeth, which had been knocked out during another beating.

Twenty-five years later, having just got back from shopping on the Gold Coast for presents for his children in South Africa, Kolisi says he saw the photographs of his young and unmarked mother “after she had passed. I showed them to my younger brother and he said: ‘That looks nothing like her.’ That broke me. 그러나, even through the hurt, she’ll always be beautiful to me.”

Kolisi looks up. “I see some of the men who beat her in the streets when I go home and it hurts that nothing ever happened to them. I see this one guy and I remember the day I watched him beat up my mother. I get so angry but I must control myself.”

Has he spoken to the man? "아니. I couldn’t talk to him.”

Kolisi started drinking and sniffing petrol before he was 10 and he stresses rugby and his first coach, Eric Songwiqi at African Bombers, a township club, saved him. “I met Coach Eric when I was 12. He also coached at another school and they beat my team 50-0. But after the game he said he saw something special in me. He asked me to move to his school.”

Songwiqi arranged for Kolisi and two other Zwide boys to go on a scholarship to Grey School – one of the great private rugby schools in South Africa. “There were three of us but I was very small,” Kolisi says. “I had malnutrition. So he forced [회색] and said: ‘If you want these two you have to take this one [Kolisi points to himself].”

He could not speak much English and was plunged into a world of immense privilege. “It was hard and embarrassing at times. I felt stupid and would run away from the other kids because I couldn’t speak. But I love people so much that I started to speak broken English. The boys would laugh but I kept on.

“I made a friend, Nick Holton, who is still my best mate. He taught me how to speak English and helped me a lot. It was really tough but I was also getting fed good food for the first time in my life. 나는 생각했다: ‘I cannot let this opportunity go.’ I knew this could be the ticket for my family.”

The sudden change in his life “revealed that the world is unfair. It was just a 15-minute drive [from Zwide to Grey] and that’s all it took for me to start dreaming differently. I knew I’d left so many talented players, who were probably better than me, in the township. It’s unfair because they were starved of that opportunity.”

Kolisi made his Test debut in June 2013. 그는 ~였다 22 and he came on as a substitute after four minutes against Scotland. South Africa were 17-6 down but after Kolisi turned in a man-of-the-match performance they won 30-17.

It still took a long time to establish himself in the starting XV and at the 2015 World Cup he barely played. He lost himself in drink – so much so that Rachel, whom he married a year later, left the UK a week early.

Were his drinking problems a way of escaping his painful past? “Definitely. I drank when I was happy or sad, or dealing with something. Drinking was the only way I knew to get through this stuff.”

In his book Kolisi explains it was only at the start of 2019, in World Cup year, that Rachel persuaded him to find a Christian mentor, Ben Schoeman, who spoke in blunt terms: “Siya, you drink a lot, you fool around with women, you go to strip clubs. You post on social media about your faith in Christ, but you’re lying to yourself and everyone else.”

Kolisi met Schoeman when “my sin was exposed”. He says: “I started opening up to him and we spoke deeply. He told me I needed to stop drinking. It was tough at the beginning but now I don’t miss it.”

In being so open does he worry about tarnishing his image as a Mandela-style figure in South African rugby? "아니, because that’s me and I want to encourage people that it’s OK to look for help. Too many people commit suicide out of desperation because they’re too proud to talk to someone else. I want to encourage men to speak because they don’t talk to each other. Men don’t open up or want to cry. Men want to look strong at all times. But life is not about that. You can’t carry all that weight because it can break you.”

The night before the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, “Rachel and me sat outside our room in the corridor because our kids were sleeping. We wrote down our goals to help others.”

It sounds an unusual way to prepare for a momentous match but Kolisi and the Springboks carried an almost divine conviction they would win the World Cup. They never looked in any danger of losing to England, who had been clear favourites.

There was joy across South Africa but Kolisi stresses sport cannot change a brutal reality. On any given day in South Africa an average of 58 people are murdered and 114 women are raped. He resolved to talk about gender violence as his primary topic of concern in public.

“You win the World Cup and get given a platform. Rachel said: ‘You couldn’t help your mother or your aunt but you can help other women.’ She was right. Gender violence hurts me even if I am a man. I have my own daughter, my wife and my sister. I would never want them to suffer this violence.”

Does pornography fuel gender violence? “I’m not a professional so I don’t really want to get into that. But I know it [pornography] was a problem for me. I can’t say more than that.”

He is also reluctant to discuss the way Rassie Erasmus, the World Cup-winning coach and now the Springboks’ director of rugby, released his videos criticising the officials during the bruising recent series against the Lions. “I don’t want to go over that. I don’t like drama.

“But it was such a tough series because of all the things happening off the field. We were stuck in the bubble, I was getting over Covid and we lost the first Test. There was lots of drama and I felt the pressure.

“Before the second Test I started crying in an interview. They asked me a simple question: ‘What would you tell your nine-year-old self?’ I was not crying because of the question. It was because of the intense pressure.”

Kolisi describes victory over the Lions as second only to winning the World Cup. His sporting dream is that he and the Springboks will equal Richie McCaw and the All Blacks by becoming the second captain and country to retain the World Cup.

The magnificent Springbok win on Saturday over the All Blacks, with Kolisi an industrious inspiration again, bolsters his conviction. “I’ve always believed in the group and I do believe it’s possible. But we have a lot to get right and then we go to Europe in November.”

He has been in Australia for two months, for the Rugby Championship, so Kolisi has taken a brief break from therapy. “I have missed it a little bit,”그는 말한다. “Sometimes a break is good but it will be even better to go back and talk some more. It always helps to talk.”

Rise by Siya Kolisi is published by Harper Collins




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