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Springboks naming Siya Kolisi as first black Test captain is one step on long road to change

The appointment of Siya Kolisi as the Springboks' first black Test captain in their 127-year history has been welcomed as an important milestone in South African rugby's ongoing efforts to reconcile its past with its present.


As well as offering optimism for its future.

Kolisi's merited elevation is a cause for celebration for those working to advance the cause of non-white players in South Africa.


But that it still now remains something exceptional and remarkable only serves to underline the painfully slow-paced and inherently problematic journey towards transformation of the sport in post-apartheid South Africa.

It is a journey that is far from over.
It is 24 years since institutionalised racial segregation came to an end in South Africa.

A year later Nelson Mandela donned a Springboks jersey — long a symbol of racial division in sport in the country — when handing over the World Cup, hosted by South Africa, to Francois Pienaar in a moment drenched in symbolism and optimism in a country wrestling with reconciliation.

One none-white player, Chester Williams, played in the 1995 final.

The following tournament in 1999 saw the first black African feature when Kaya Malotana earned his solitary cap.

And yet, despite such landmark moments, and the subsequent success of players like Bryan Habana and Tendai Mtawarira, moves to transform the team to one more reflective of the demographics of the "rainbow nation" have been uneven and woefully incomplete.
Most rugby teams in South Africa are even today still largely the preserve of white players and coaches.

It is a legacy of the sport's heartland being within the Afrikaners community.

If Mandela's embracing of the Springboks was symbolic of that moment in South African history, the continued lack of opportunities for non-white rugby players is emblematic of the wider social struggle for people who have found political freedom but not the socio-economic liberty the end of apartheid had offered hope of.

Big ambitions, slow progress
Malotana hopes Kolisi can be a "gate to open doors" but remains disappointed at the rate of progress on racial representation in the sport since his own breakthrough, telling the South African news organisation Independent Media: "The only reason we are celebrating the first black Springbok captain in 2018 is exactly because the transformation agenda has not been made a priority from the powers that be".

The South African Rugby Union (SA Rugby) would dispute the notion they are not working hard enough to foster change. And insist they are making progress.

In 2014 its general council approved a "transformation plan" to try and accelerate non-white representation in the sport.

That document stated the ambition of securing a 50/50 split both on and off the field by the 2019 World Cup.

A year out that target looks well beyond being met.

Earlier this month the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) submitted its annual Sport Transformation Status report, in which SA Rugby were deemed to have met 60 per cent of their short-term targets (set by SA Rugby themselves and approved by the department of sport).

However, despite SA Rugby's positive take, the report laid bare the continued lack of representation for black Africans in rugby.

Some 58 per cent of senior male participants in the national game in 2016 (the period the report covered) were white, with just 22 per cent black. The white population in the country makes up barely 10 per cent.
"Leadership in codes with large white demographic profiles have to be proactive in putting strategies in place to counter the inevitable consequences of the strategic demographic realities," the report warned in its conclusion.

EPG committee secretary Willie Basson praised the commitment from SA Rugby but pointed to a need to "open the pipeline" to the pool of future national team players among school age children, of whom the vast majority are black Africans.

Poor facilities in areas where black youngsters play their rugby and the continued reliance on a small number of predominantly white schools to produce top level rugby players is a continuing impediment to progress.

Tapping latent potential
The story of Kolisi, who also captains Western Stormers in Super Rugby, offers some hope in that regard.

The 26-year-old flanker grew up in a poor township in South Africa's Eastern Cape province before being spotted by rugby scouts and earning a scholarship to Grey High School, one of the top educational centres in the region.

With Kolisi the sport has offered a gifted, dedicated man a route to personal success that may have been denied him elsewhere.

And in turn the game has benefitted from his involvement.
His story demonstrates with crystal clear clarity the value in rugby in South Africa looking beyond its natural constituency — for the pragmatic reasons of unlocking latent talent to fuel future success, even aside from the basic moral imperative to do so.

A natural captain
Kolisi will be on the sideline for Saturday's international against Wales in Washington, his Stormers teammate Pieter-Steph du Toit wearing the armband for that fixture before the flanker prepares to lead against the English in a three-Test series.

"It's a huge honour to captain the Springboks," said coach Rassie Erasmus, "and Siya and Pieter-Steph are two honest, hardworking men who enjoy the respect of their fellow players".

"My philosophy is that each player must take responsibility for his position and must therefore work extremely hard with that one goal in mind — to make the Springboks successful again."

How to make the Springboks successful again while grappling with politics of identity and fairness is a debate that has raged ever since South Africa were readmitted in to the wider sporting community.

The makeup of the team and the methods for promoting non-whites to the national side — the rights and wrongs of "positive discrimination" and quotas — have dominated the build-up to every World Cup since 1995 and will do so again next year.

Kolisi's historic appointment, however, stands as hard evidence that the transformation process, despite beliefs to the contrary, can strengthen rather than weaken the two-time World Cup winners.

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