Book Extract: The Kolisi’s passionate fight against GBV in SA
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Johannesburg - Many comments have been made and books written about Siya Kolisi, captain of the Springboks and the first black man to lead his country in more than 128 years of South African rugby. But now, for the very first time, Kolisi shares his story in an extraordinarily intimate memoir, charting his journey from the impoverished Zwide township, his 2018 appointment as captain of the Springboks ‒ recognised worldwide as a pivotal moment in South African history ‒ to leading his proud nation to an astonishing victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and becoming the first black captain of a World Cup-winning side.
However, Rise is not simply a chronology of matches played and games won; it is an exploration of a man’s race and his faith, a master class in attaining a positive mindset, and an inspirational reminder that it is possible to defy the odds, no matter how they are stacked against you. This is a shortened extract from his book.
The night before the World Cup Final, Rachel and I sat down in the lobby on our date night and made a list of everything we wanted to help change in South Africa. We were determined to tackle the big issues. We started to look at what it would take to make this possible, and we knew we had to get going immediately. I felt that my influence had increased and that I could use this to make a difference.
It was great to be in the spotlight, but that wouldn’t last forever. I might only have this influence for a limited time, and I needed to use it wisely. There is one cause which moves me above all, and that’s gender-based violence. People think of that being a problem only for a certain section of society, but it’s not. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, black or white, rich or poor. If you’re a human being then this affects you.
As the old quote goes, the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. If you say nothing then you’re actually saying something. Silence is picking a side. Silence isn’t by itself violence, but silence certainly enables violence.
I used to be the quiet guy in the corner who never spoke out. I have been silent too long on things which matter too much. No longer. I think, for example, of the women in Zwide who were beaten up every day when I was growing up. People ask now: well, why didn’t the women say something? To which I say: like what? They couldn’t fight back physically. They could have all got together and said that they weren’t going to take it any more, and while they were in a crowd out in the open of course no one would have dared touch them; but then that night they’d have gone back to their homes and it would all have started again.
And also why should the women have had to say something? It wasn’t their fault. When I think of gender-based violence, I think first of all of my mother. I have a picture of her looking young, beautiful and most of all unscarred; I never saw her look like that. Never. Because her face changed so much from different men beating her up. That breaks me, you know? When I was five, I remember playing in the street and picking up a couple of her teeth which a man had knocked out. She got robbed of her youth, to be her beautiful self like she was made.
By the time she died, she had scars all over her face. She was one of millions. Sexual violence is through the roof in our country. A woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, a rate five times the global average.
You arrive at a rugby match half an hour before kick-off and stay another half an hour afterwards having a drink with your mates; on average, one woman will have been killed in that time.
Women like Tshegofatso Pule, who was found hanging in a field eight months pregnant with a stab wound to her chest, or Uyinene, or any number of others who are as anonymous in death as they were in life.
More than 100 women are raped every day, and they’re only the ones we know about, as most rapes and sexual assaults aren’t reported. For all the desperate cries we hear, there are many, many more that we don’t, many more whose suffering is silent but no less agonising for that. This happens every day, and every day people say that it’s awful, and every day it goes on just as before.
Now and then a case captures the public attention and sparks protests, just as Uyinene’s case did, and politicians speak in sombre tones about how the problem needs to be fixed, and after a while the focus fades, the news agenda moves on to something else, and any urgency towards reform is stalled.
The reality is that, as a country and as men, we have demonstrated that instances of violence will not translate into the individual or collective will to stop this. Our problem is not a lack of awareness, and we cannot in good conscience say, ‘We didn’t know’. We’ve seen the very worst of violence perpetrated against women and it hasn’t caused us to change.
Women know this. Without political will, a change in the sensationalism and narratives around the reporting of gender-based violence, and men’s greater involvement as allies with women when it comes to gender-based violence, nothing will change.
Various factors are blamed for these insanely high levels of violence: alcohol, drugs, poverty, police forces who don’t take these cases seriously, inadequate laws, not enough women in government able to speak for and with other women and to focus on issues affecting women and girls.
All these play a part in exacerbating the problem, but one of the deepest causes is the low status women have, and that in turn is down to men. Men feel entitled to have sex with women as that’s how they’ve always perceived the power relationship between the sexes to be.
Polls show that the vast majority of South African men feel that women should obey their husbands; around half feel that a man can never rape his wife as he is always entitled to sex. Many men refer to domestic violence as ‘fixing their homes’.
This starts early, with the values we instil in our kids. Boys are taught to be tough, strong and unemotional, and this damages them in two ways.
First, it prevents them from accessing their own weaknesses, meaning they don’t know how to deal with emotionally anxious situations; and second, it sets them up in direct opposition to women, who behave in very different ways. Boys who don’t assert their power over girls are shamed by other boys. Weaker girls are picked on because they don’t resist; more assertive girls are seen as needing to be put in their place and taken down a peg or two.
There’s no way a woman, whoever she is, can win here. Sexual abuse starts early and is a series of points on a scale rather than just one thing. At one end is women being demeaned, called names, objectified as sex objects; next comes sexual harassment and pestering; then sexual assault; then rape; then murder.
Not every man goes all the way to the end of that chain, obviously, but no man who’s killed a woman has started right at the deep end either. And with each step a man takes, the sense of entitlement towards taking the next step grows. The attack on women starts long before physical violence; it’s in our conversations with our fellow men, how we treat women in our own lives, and how we treat and perceive women we don’t know.
And because so many men feel this and do this, it is socially acceptable, so other men don’t call them out on it. Indeed, they often positively encourage it. It’s men doing these things, but so far men have not faced the consequences, not really. People always ask, ‘Why don’t women leave abusive relationships?’ but they never ask, ‘Why don’t men stop beating women up?’
We talk about how many women were raped last year, but not how many men raped women. These aren’t things which just happen and are done to women by some impersonal force. These are things which men do, and the way we talk about this issue needs to reflect that.
Only women have had to adjust their behaviour. Almost every woman has walked with her keys between her fingers, varied her route, made a fake phone call, arranged for a friend to call her at a certain time, doubled back on herself, pretended to dawdle by a shop window to let a man walking behind her pass, kept to well-lit streets at night as far as possible, been nice to a creepy guy in a bar in case he turns nasty, locked her car doors the moment she’s inside the vehicle, asked a cab driver to drop her a little way from her front door, made efforts not to leave her drink unattended, texted friends to say she’s home safely, worried in the small hours when a friend hasn’t texted to say she’s home safely, and so on.
Almost every woman has wondered three words which speak a lifetime of fear – am I next?
About the author
Siya Kolisi is one of the most respected players in rugby today. South Africa was unified in pride on November 2, 2019 when Kolisi led his team to Rugby World Cup victory, returning South Africa to the top of the world rankings for the first time in 10 years. Kolisi is the new modern face of Africa, with a voice to unite a nation, who offers a new pathway for many. Today Kolisi stands as, not only a Rugby World Cup champion, but a BBC ‘Sports Star of the Year’ nominee and one of New African’s ‘Most Influential Africans’ – achievements that demonstrate the impact of his journey outside of sport. Kolisi was also named in the Forbes Africa 2021 list of 100 most influential Africans. Last year, Siya and his wife, Rachel, launched The Kolisi Foundation, providing personal protective equipment to health-care workers and delivering food parcels throughout South Africa.
Rise is published by Harper Collins Publishers and retails at R320.