Just when South Africa needs inspiring again, Siya Kolisi is drawing on the sense of national unity that last year’s Rugby World Cup triumph was forged on.
Lifting the trophy showed the captain just what can be achieved when South Africa comes together as a multiracial nation, from the rugby fields to the townships and the cities.
“I pride myself on being South African,” Kolisi says, “and that fighting spirit and resilience for whatever challenges are pushed our way.”
The challenge now is the coronavirus pandemic. South Africans who took to the streets to celebrate a sporting triumph led by the Springboks’ first black captain now need to stay home.
“We fight and support as much as we can because that’s what was given to us,” Kolisi says in an interview with The Associated Press. “We are trying to give it back to the people now who need it the most.”
Having grown up in a township near Port Elizabeth, Kolisi knows how tough the lockdown is for those living in the more cramped, deprived homes, especially when families are cut off from each other.
“Now my friends are telling,” Kolisi says, “that they need something. They don’t have enough food.”
Kolisi and his wife, Rachel Kolisi, are trying to help, explaining during a video interview from near Cape Town how they have fast-tracked the launch of their foundation to help a country in need. Hand sanitizer, masks and goggles are among the equipment being sent by The Kolisi Foundation to the Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth and Khayelitsha Hospital in Cape Town.
“Our healthcare system is not prepared to handle the coronavirus,” Rachel Kolisi says.
South Africa has confirmed more than 2,700 cases of COVID-19, and 50 deaths. Italy, which also has a population of around 60 million, on Saturday announced 3,491 new cases just over the previous day, taking the total number of infections to nearly 176,000 with 23,227 deaths.
The nationwide lockdown being imposed relatively early in South Africa on March 27 has been credited with helping to control the spread of the coronavirus, bringing the daily average increase in cases down from 42% to 4%.
“We were blessed in that we could kind of monitor what was happening in some of the European countries and even what’s happening in America and kind of prepare a little bit better and a little bit sooner,” Rachel Kolisi says. “But it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people are in very serious danger in South Africa.”
And now is not the time to ease up in taking precautions to contain the disease and helping each other out, Siya Kolisi stresses.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, this affects you,” he says. “But if you have a little bit more than another this is the time to show your human spirit. We are only going to win this if everybody wins.”
One medical facility the Kolisis were quick to help was Groote Schuur Hospital, sending 1,000 face masks to the neonatal unit where son Nicholas was born prematurely in 2014.
“A lot of the mums are needing to still breastfeed their children and have to take public transportation in order to get to their babies,” Rachel Kolisi explains, “and they can’t do that without masks.”
With sport shut down in South Africa, Siya Kolisi doesn’t know when he’ll be back playing rugby again. The power of the sport doesn’t fade in its absence. Kolisi only has to think back to November and just what beating England 32-12 in Japan in the World Cup final meant to the country.
“Now every single kid in our country — we have a diverse country and we have 11 official languages — can be themselves,” he says. “Most of them were represented in the team, which is something that we are proud of as a team.
“You can be whatever you want to in this life. That’s what we showed out there. We all come from different backgrounds and different cultures and races.”
The post-apartheid nation has been given renewed belief.
“We had one goal in common … put our own personal goals and dreams aside and just fought for the country and the team, and we achieved it,” Siya Kolisi says. “Barriers have been broken.”
Inequalities persist, though, in the Rainbow Nation and are being reinforced by the economic struggles during the pandemic. With most commercial activity shut down, the poorest and most vulnerable have been especially hurt.
“What we’re going through right now, people not having food, not having water, hopefully whatever we do right now to be able to look after people carries on,” Kolisi says. “Hopefully one day (the help) is never needed because everything is equal. It doesn’t matter and you wake up one day and don’t have to worry whether you going to get a meal or not. …
“You want to wake up and dream about being a doctor or whatever you want to be. So your dreams are not limited.”