-- Before Siya Kolisi was a sportsman, a success story or a Springboks star, he was a survivor.
Circumstance could have swallowed Kolisi whole in the Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth, where he was born to a 16-year-old mother and a largely absent father and was left in the care of a grandmother who had to go hungry on some days so she could feed him. Sport was a social pastime. Kolisi played rugby and despite all the things he lacked, a tackle was not one of them. No-one would have known that had South Africa's newly democratised schooling system not saved him, so to speak. Kolisi is transformation personified, in that best way. He is an example of a system that does work in some cases. He benefited from the some of the structures set up to right the wrongs of South Africa's segregated past. This is how.
When Kolisi was at primary school - on the days he could afford the R50 (US$3.61) fee - he was part of the rugby team; in sixth grade, he tried out for the provincial under-12 side. He made the B team and was sent to a tournament in Mossel Bay, a town four hours away from Port Elizabeth. At the same tournament, Grey Junior School, a government-funded, previously white and prestigious institution that had produced international cricketers Graeme and Peter Pollock, was competing. The rest ...
But things did not unfold in the linear way you may imagine. It was not simply a case of a sports scout spotting a skilled youngster and saving him a spot at the school. Kolisi's grandmother could not afford him to send him to Grey and Kolisi could not speak English, the medium of instruction at Grey; but Grey was determined to get him.
Grey was part of a schools system that was one of the first instruments of change as Apartheid ended, and the administration and teachers saw it as their responsibility to do the right thing. They offered scholarships to children with academic or sporting prowess from what was termed "previously disadvantages backgrounds." They rely on corporate funding or old-boy donations to fund these scholarships that today can cost R100,000 (US$7300) per child per year to cover tuition fees, boarding costs, school uniform, sports kits and books. For that reason, the scholarships are limited and highly sought after, something Kolisi may not even have known when he was offered one.
Once at Grey - first at the Junior School and then the High School - Kolisi began to blossom. His room-mate Nick Holten taught him some English and his self-assurance knew no bounds. He was determined to do everything his new surrounds offered him, which included trying out for the water polo team although he had only been in a swimming pool twice before. In an interview with Destiny Man, Kolisi recalled how he "used to see my school mates diving into the pool and assumed it was the easiest thing in the world" but almost drowned when he tried it himself.
His rugby participation was more successful. Kolisi was part of the Grey first XV and played in major tournaments around the country, including Craven Week, a competition set up for the best schoolboy rugby players in the country. It's there that careers can be made. The provincial academies' scouts attend this week to see who they are interested in signing, and Kolisi was in high demand.
"Most unions were interested in signing him to their academy," Jacques Hanekom, the director of the Western Province Rugby Institute, recalls. "Some guys you can train to do things and to others, it just comes naturally. Siya was one of those guys. He was a very good ball carrier and it was difficult for tacklers to bring him down. We offered the biggest contract we offer to schoolboys and he came to us."
That was when the real education began. Around 45 school-leavers join the academy annually and are assessed over a 10-month period to see if they will make it professionally.
"When they come to us, we already know the guy is a good rugby player, but you still need to know his character and his work ethic," Hanekom tells ESPN. When Kolisi arrived in Stellenbosch, where the institute is based, he was carrying a shoulder injury so much of his time there was spent on rehabilitation; but he had the chance to impress the Western Province administrators with his maturity. He was a great guy and very talented," Hanekom says. "At schoolboy level, the rugby is very much focused on attack and it's quite a free-flowing, quick game. As the players become more professional, they move some of the focus to defence, which Siya was already quite good at when he was the academy."
But there remained a big difference between impressive and being employed. Of the players the academy takes in, there are some years in which only five players get offered professional contracts and others with as many 35 offered. "The reality is that the majority of players won't get in because there is a bottleneck from the schoolboy stage to professional rugby," Hanekom says. "Some move away by choice and others fall out of the system by natural selection."
Kolisi, who had by then lost his grandmother and discovered he had a younger half-brother and sister he wanted to care for, knew failure to make it would spell disaster for him. Fortunately, he never had to discover what he would do if he didn't make it. He was contracted to Western Province and the rest ...
The upside is that Kolisi was able to find his siblings and take them in, and he is now a breadwinner for a family which, as of a year ago, includes his own son. He has not forgotten who gave him a start, mostly because there are still no many reminders of where he came from. For example, two years ago, Kolisi could not drive when he was named the brand ambassador for Audi; the company paid for him to get his drivers' licence.
So Kolisi gives back.
"Whenever we need him, he turns up," Hanekom says. "He is a great marketer for us."
He also plans on giving back even more to the system that gave him everything: schools; Kolisi still aims to become a junior school teacher when his playing days are over.
The bigger upside is that transformation worked even though it did not go to the township. Transformation took the township to it. That has its own downsides, mostly that children leave their communities: at first that can make it difficult for children to identify with and assimilate with their new environments; later it makes it difficult for them to do the same with those they leave behind. But it does prove something is being done at grassroots level, albeit in a different way to what people imagine. This is about building facilities in areas of neglect; it's about taking the neglected to the facilities that are already there.
Grey is one example.
The school currently has 14 learners on bursaries through their Outreach program, which also maintains a relationship with Zwide. On Saturday mornings, Grey offers tutoring for learners from the Ndzondelelo High School in Zwide to assist them with computer skills.
There are other schools with similar programs, and they are producing players of their own; so much so that Hanekom says these days "in South Africa, unlike in Europe where rugby is a club game, all the talented players come through the schools".
"And the schools have become professional in their make-up. Every year, we see the schoolboys getting better and better."
If that keeps happening, transformation will keep happening and it will lose the dirty connotation of promoting "quota" players as undeserving chancers and will rather be seen as a way to discover deserving players and give them a chance.