London (AFP) – Siya Kolisi’s appointment as the first black skipper of the South African rugby team is as significant as when Nelson Mandela handed the 1995 World Cup trophy to white captain Francois Pienaar says former Springbok legend Bryan Habana.
Kolisi, the 26-year-old captain and flanker of the Western Stormers Super Rugby franchise, enjoyed a dream debut as skipper with the ‘Boks storming back from going 24-3 down to beat England 42-39 in a thrilling Test match last Saturday.
Habana, who recently announced his retirement after a wonderful 124 Test career scoring a national record 67 tries and winning the 2007 World Cup, told The Daily Telegraph the significance of coach Rassie Erasmus naming Kolisi transcended the narrow confines of rugby.
“Siya is not just an inspiration for black South Africans, he is an inspiration for South Africa,” said Habana, who played with Kolisi at The Stormers.
“That is so important. How he has broken down social barriers is incredible. But then, to his credit, he has been vocal about performing to justify where he is.
“With Siya running out last Saturday, hopefully it will allow a new generation to aspire to achieve greatness.
“We have a lot of things to overcome in South Africa but this could stand rugby and our country in an unbelievable amount of good stead going forward.”
Habana, who is studying for a business management degree but will also spend more time focusing on his charity work, says players of colour have it doubly hard in proving they are worthy of wearing the Springbok shirt through ability and not due to the much criticised quotas rule.
An agreement has been struck between the national rugby body and the government that 50 percent of the team at the 2019 World Cup in Japan will be black.
“As a player of colour, you know there is a massive responsibility on your shoulders when you have that opportunity to wear the Springbok jersey,” said Habana.
“No player of colour wants to be seen as a quota player. That term quota player is so difficult to speak about because we all just want fair and equal opportunities.
“Given apartheid, it is extremely challenging. It is a unique situation that no other rugby playing country has to consider or worry about.”
Habana, who was so inspired by the image of black president Mandela handing the trophy of a sport indelibly linked with apartheid to Pienaar he took up rugby, says it is hard for those living outside South Africa to realise how determined people like Kolisi and those who are growing up in townships have travelled to succeed.
“If you live in a township and don’t have access to facilities or to public transport, if you don’t have funds available to train at rugby, it can be difficult,” said Habana.
“And it’s hard to conceptualise that to people who have not been embroiled in that environment.
“It is a challenge that is unfortunately always going to be part of South Africa, given our history.”