Willemse and Kolisi – A Tale of Two Springboks

The controversy and celebration of Willemse and Kolisi together tell the story of contemporary South Africa.

I have always been a fan of Siya Kolisi. I think he thoroughly deserves to be Bok captain. He is one of those players who finds extra gears wearing the green and gold.

I remember hearing Rassie Erasmus five years ago tell a group of coaches that Kolisi is one of the hardest and toughest men in the game.

He has risen from a tough life in the township of Zwide, via his schooling at Grey High, to carrying that old sacred mantle of South Africa – the Springbok captaincy…

A few years ago, I criticised Heyneke Meyer in the Mail and Guardian, because I believed he was only picking players with whom he was culturally comfortable, at the expense of players like Kolisi and Pat Lambie. See here for my piece, ‘Rugby has a race problem’. Kolisi’s image sat under the headline.

A few nights after it came out, Heyneke Meyer’s media man tracked me down and chewed off my ear for daring to criticise Meyer without being a journalist on the Bok beat.

I often think about this when I write about white privilege and colonialism and get attacked by leftists for not being ‘woke’ about race and patriarchy. See here.

It’s a strange world we live in – if you criticise bigotry against black people, you get attacked by one group of people. If you criticise bigotry against white people, you get attacked by a completely different set of people.

And that’s why, sadly, the Kolisi story, and all that it represents concerning the triumph over poverty, has to be tempered by the mad controversy currently swirling around Ashwin Willemse.

Willemse, like Kolisi, was a fantastic Bok.

Jake White famously said if he had fifteen Ashwins, he wouldn’t lose a Test. White picked him for his Under-21 World Cup winning side, and organised him a Lions contract under Eugene Eloff, and then controversially picked him for his Bok World Cup winning side again in 2007, after years of injury.

But White believed in Willemse the man.

This is why his outburst and the reaction to it on Supersport were so disheartening for me.

He tarnished the names of Nick Mallett and Naas Botha with the taint of racism and of being so-called apartheid Springboks. In the aftermath, the black bosses of Supersport and Multichoice confirmed there was zero evidence of racism on their parts.

Willemse is an incredibly wealthy man (from BEE deals). He got Springbok opportunities that Botha and Mallett never did.

And all he had to do was rant on television and suddenly ‘black twitter’ and Musi Maimane and Castle Lager were ready to jump on the bandwagon against Mallett and Botha.

This kind of spectacle is not constructive for anybody, and it is a direct result of the continued game of identity politics being played by politicians, media and intellectuals in this country.

Instead of solving the social crisis of family breakdown in this country, we discuss Mallett and Botha.

Instead of talks about how we can alleviate poverty, we go to talks about micro-aggressions in the workplace and white privilege.

And in so doing, we lessen the chances of replicating more and more Siya Kolisi stories, in which the human spirit triumphs for the good of all those around it.

For the love of God and country, we need more hope and solidarity in this country, and less grievance and anger. We need to focus on lifting people up and not pulling people down. We need to extend privilege, not check privilege.

All I can hope is that Willemse’s tirade is forgotten as we all celebrate Rassie Erasmus making the right call of entrusting Kolisi with the role of leading the Boks – out of the mire of blame and mediocrity, towards international excellence.