Siya Kolisi celebrates with fans after a Test match against England in Bloemfontein in June.
On June 9 Springbok flank Siya Kolisi shoved critics and prejudice aside, engraving his place in history as the first black rugby player to captain the Bok team in 127 years.

It was an emotion-charged moment that few will forget and one that could not have been imagined even five years ago.

Yet, as he led his team on to the field at Ellis Park in the same No 6 jersey Mandela wore when South Africa won the World Cup, there were the head-shakers who wondered if head coach Rassie Erasmus had done the right thing.

On that occasion, the Springboks beat England by 42 points to 39. It was a good start, everyone agreed.

Six weeks later, with a series win under his team's belt, few, player or fan, can question 27-year-old Kolisi's place in South Africa's sporting hall of fame.

One could even say his leadership role is a haunting reminder of those who, in the days of isolation, were denied the right to wear the green and gold because of skin colour.

In his first post-match news conference, he spoke in English and Xhosa - another fitting twist to a compelling, often heart-breaking story that began in Zwide, a dusty, impoverished township on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.

While Kolisi plays down his humble beginnings - “there were millions of poor black children like me living in the Eastern Cape, so there's nothing unusual about me” - some would see his rise as astonishing.

“He might have come from a challenging background, but he was born to lead. I have no doubt about that,” says former Bok captain Gary Teichman.

“He wasn't shy to express his thoughts about players who had left the country to join overseas teams. He said they should come back to African soil. It was a brave thing to say. He is hugely respected for his stance, both on and off the field. He is also a great player, who gives 120% of himself.”

Another former Bok rugby captain, John Smit, believes that consistency and “good, old-fashioned honest values” are what Kolisi brings to the game.

“In my view, his captaincy could have been earlier. He is a strong warrior who commands respect all round. At a press conference, he was asked if he represented the interest of black Africans. He replied: ‘I represent all South Africans who love the game of rugby’.”

Whatever he might say, Kolisi's start was not so ordinary. He was born to teenage parents of limited means. He and his two younger siblings were raised by their grandmother, who took odd jobs as a domestic worker wherever she could to provide for the family.

“My mom was too young to raise me,” Kolisi said before his debut as captain. “It was a difficult time - not the worst, but it was difficult for me going to school and everything.”

One thing his family taught him was a love for rugby. Since the age of eight, Kolisi says he had a firm understanding of the game, thanks to his father, Fezakele, who played centre for the local team and was later to witness his son's first appearance in a green and gold jersey, playing against Scotland.

However, with deprivation ever-present, it is doubtful the then eight-year-old would have imagined himself playing for a provincial team, let alone captaining a Springbok team traditionally dominated by white players.

“When you live in a township, you just don't dream big like that,” Kolisi said at a press conference.

He did earn a place playing rugby for his school, Emsengeni Primary.

“There was hardly any equipment or proper grounds,” he recalled. “Once we got thrashed 50-nil, but it didn't matter.”

It also didn't matter to veteran sports coach Eric Songwiqi, who was the first to recognise the young Kolisi's talent, recalling how he was “astonished” at the young schoolboy's fire and raw talent.

“He was definitely a player of the future, destined for big things,” was how Songwiqi described him.

When the opportunity arose to participate in provincial trials, Kolisi seized it.

“I'll never forget those trials because I was playing in silk boxers. I didn't have shorts.”

His fortunes changed when, at the age of 12, he was spotted by Andrew Hayidakis, the coach of Grey High School's first rugby team who offered him a full rugby scholarship.

“Coming from the township, not having much and then coming to Grey, you start believing you can be whatever you want to be. I realised for the first time that my dream of playing for my province, even my country, could become a reality.”

He played for the school team and later the Eastern Province Kings.

In 2012 he made his debut for Cape Town-based Super Rugby side the Stormers, and last year was promoted to captain.

His journey from a kid playing in the dusty streets of Zwide to the hallowed grass of Ellis Park has not always been smooth sailing.

In 2016, he married the love of his life, Rachel Smith. They have two children and have adopted Kolisi's two half-siblings, who had been put in an orphanage after his mother died. The mixed-race couple have had to deal with more than their fair share of insults from the public on both sides of the divide.

While Kolisi is passionate about his fitness and role as captain, there was a light-hearted moment when he described how his wife took the news that he was to become the Springbok captain.

“When I told my wife, she put the phone down on me. Seconds later, she called back and asked me to repeat what I had just said. Then she was so overjoyed she wanted to tell the world. I had to tell her to hang on as my appointment was not yet official. ‘Okay, when it is official, she said, you must first tell your dad'.”

Earlier this year, Erasmus said there was only ever one man for the job. “I don't think there was ever a stage where I personally doubted he should be captain,” he said.

Many will be hoping Kolisi's captaincy will spearhead the changes needed to bring a sense of healing to a sport and a nation scarred by inequality and social injustice.

SUNDAY TRIBUNE