“God chose me to be the light...”
Born on Youth Day in 1991 to a 15-year-old mother, Phakama Qasana and a 20-year old father, Fezakele Kolisi, Siyamthanda Kolisi met his father when Phakama dropped him off at his father’s school gate, while Fezakele was writing examinations.
Embarrassed, Fezakele took the baby to his mother in Zwide (Port Elizabeth) where he was raised.
He watched his first Rugby World Cup with his father aged four in 1995, mastering the Haka, New Zealand’s notorious Maori war cry.
Siya recalls the abject poverty he grew up under. “We were poor, like everybody in my community, we were struggling. My dad was young and soon he left for Cape Town to look for work, and my grandmother, Nolulamile Kolisi, who worked as a maid emakitchini, took care of me, struggling to secure meals every day,” recalls Kolisi in a TV interview in 2017.
His granny used to visit family and friends and stash cookies in the pocket for Siya. His other means of food was the school feeding scheme that provided slices of bread with peanut butter or jam with powder milk mixed with water. He loved school because of this meal, which was sometimes his only meal of the day.
“My grandmother gave me so much love and time. I appreciated that because I wanted it from my father but he was not there,” he recalls. When his father returned, Siya remembers him being an alcoholic and abusive to his young mother. “I used to cry over this treatment, and I promised myself that I would never be that guy that lifts his hand at a woman, it just was not right,” he said.
He experimented a bit with marijuana as it was a drug of choice in the township, but claims that it did not work for him because he wanted to play rugby like his father. He trained every day and came home to a meal of water with sugar for supper, known as “indubela” in African communities. He would then retire to his makeshift bed of couch cushions laid out on the floor.
Kolisi speaks with a heavy heart when he recalls the death of both his grandmother and mother died in 2003 and was raised by his aunt. “My aunt was good to me. When I did not have school shoes, she lent me her shoes, something that was obviously hilarious to my schoolmates. That did not bug me, I had been through worse in my life,” he states.
Kolisi was discovered by a school teacher, Eric Songwiqi who took him to play rugby with his school. Within six months he was awarded a scholarship to attend Grey Junior Primary and High School in Port Elizabeth. Songwiqi continued to coach him until he went for the Eastern Province trials, dressed in silky boxers.
“There were two other boys that were better than me in rugby but I think the selectors spotted me because of those shiny boxers, I just stood out,” he chuckles. His highlight at Grey was owning five pairs of socks, his first-ever bed.
“I sat on that bed and said, I want to be a doctor, I want to be something, I just want to be successful. God chose me to be the light of my family. The hardships led me to this moment. Rugby is now my platform to make a difference to my community and I want the children to know that you determine your own future, keep working,” he said.
The 61st Springboks captain and the first black, Kolisi is married to Rachel, they have two children of their own Siyamthanda and Keziah. He also adopted his half-siblings from his mother’s side, Liyema and Liphelo. His next big plans after the World Cup; ‘to launch an underwear collection’.
The interview was featured on Hillsong South Africa