South Africa’s first black rugby captain Siya Kolisi may have made an even more positive impact on unity in the country than the iconic gesture of Nelson Mandela donning a Springboks jersey for the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, former flyhalf Joel Stransky says.
Stransky put over the decisive drop-goal as South Africa beat New Zealand to win the Webb Ellis Cup 24 years ago, and watched from the podium as a beaming President Mandela triumphantly passed the gold trophy to captain Francois Pienaar.
It was a hugely symbolic moment that offered redemption for rugby, which until then had been seen as the preserve of South Africa’s white minority and a symbol of the apartheid system.
In a tumultuous period of uncertainty in the country, where ordinary citizens fretted over the future, Mandela’s wearing of the Springboks jersey sent out a clear reconciliatory signal.
But almost a quarter of a century later the symbolism of a black man leading out the team in Saturday’s final against England offers even more positives for a society dealing with rampant crime, unemployment, corruption and economic hardships.
“If Siya Kolisi can lift the trophy it will be massive, but just making the final has already given us tremendous hope,” Stransky told Reuters in an interview.
“There has been a great sense of achievement already and that is on the back of our first black captain providing the inspiration.”
The victorious 1995 squad had just one black player in Chester Williams, the iconic winger who passed away following a heart attack on September 6 this year.
On Saturday, when South Africa face England in the final in Yokohama, the starting 15 will feature seven non-white players.
“What was most important was how Nelson Mandela used Chester as a pin-up boy and in doing so used rugby to unite the nation,” Stransky says.
“We went through a period of around 18 months where sport gave us great belief and hope by bringing people together. We not only won the World Cup, but also the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996.
“We crossed many borders and came through that period of uncertainty in good shape.
“SA Rugby has done, over the years, an enormous amount. I think what they are not good at is waving a banner and telling everybody about them,” he adds.
“If you go watch youth club rugby, or schools rugby, it is very much dominated by kids from all backgrounds.”
Kolisi’s journey, rising out of poverty in the crime-ridden Zwide township near Port Elizabeth to the brink of lifting the World Cup, is a story that all in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ have rallied behind.
Prop Tendai Mtawarira says the team recognise the significance of the moment and also what a win on Saturday would mean to the country.
“What Siya has achieved has been remarkable. For a young kid to rise above his circumstances and become Springbok captain, and lead the way he has, it’s been inspirational to all South Africans – from all walks of life,” he said in Japan this week.
Coach Rassie Erasmus also knows there is a lot more at stake on Saturday than a trophy.
“Rugby is one of the things that, for a few minutes and sometimes a few hours, days and months, if we win people seem to forget about their disagreements,” he said.
“We are trying to win for South Africa, and not just for the supporters, but because our country needs a lot of things and we want to help fix that.”