Today, Siya Kolisi will follow in Madiba’s footsteps down the same tunnel to lead the Springboks into a new dawn. He will be the first black captain of a new-look Springbok team, under new coach Rassie Erasmus, which will take on England in the first Test.
The captaincy has given the 27-year-old player cult status, although he says he doesn’t want to think too much about the fanfare. Kolisi is hoping to reflect on his historic achievement after the three-match series against England has been won.
“I don’t want to think about it too much because I don’t want to place pressure on myself. After all three of these Tests – and hopefully we will win them all –then I will sit down and allow everything to sink in,” said Kolisi in Joburg on Friday.
“I know how big a task it is, this one of playing England, and that has been the main focus. Through everything, the main thing is making sure we perform on Saturday; that’s what we have been working on."
“Obviously there is a new coaching staff and we have to learn new things; that has been my focus in the last couple of days. Tomorrow will be the first time that everything comes together for me and realising how big this moment is.”
While all eyes will be on Kolisi, in the same way they were on Mandela in that World Cup final against the All Blacks, the Port Elizabeth-born loose forward says his only focus is to lead through his actions on the field and to also utilise the leadership qualities of the players around him.
With all the euphoria around Kolisi’s appointment and the many new faces in the Springbok squad, including debutants RG Snyman, Sbu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi, there is also an unblemished series record against England that the Boks will want to maintain. They have never lost a series at home against the tourists.
Kolisi said: “I’m excited for them and really proud of the guys; they have really worked hard.
“You can see that coach is rewarding guys who have played well in Super Rugby. It feels like a new beginning for all of us, we are all in the same boat and we all want to do well.
“I know the guys will be a little bit nervous in the beginning but they will go through it because we have worked very hard in the past two weeks,” Kolisi added.
“The crowd always get behind us and for some reason, when we play here, we bring our best.”
Kolisi’s life journey from poverty and adversity in the township of Zwide in Port Elizabeth to becoming a rugby superstar and iconic figure in the history of South African sport will be inspiration enough for his teammates. But it is walking in Madiba’s footsteps at Ellis Park that could just be enough to once again unite all behind the Springboks.
“People always ask me ‘what is your favourite field to play on’ and obviously when I play for my union it is Newlands but for the Springboks it is Ellis Park. When you are standing and looking at the crowd you see the whole of South Africa in front of you all different races and colours. It is really beautiful and one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.”