The success of the South African rugby team, especially under the leadership of Siya Kolisi, has struck a strong chord with TVNZ journalist Tania Page. It’s been a demonstration of progress, a symbol of hope — and a reminder for Tania of the good and brave people she came to know in the six years she spent working as a TV journalist in South Africa.
Siya Kolisi and the Springboks’ extraordinary achievement in winning the Rugby World Cup in Japan last weekend brought the world’s spotlight on to South Africa and a glow to the hearts of millions of people. Nearly 60 million in South Africa for a start.
Siya’s humble pride, softly-spoken words, and his personal story — from barefoot, hungry township kid to captain of the world rugby champions — encompassed much that we love about South Africa. It’s another iconic moment — a black person who was given an opportunity, who thrived, who won, and who united a country.
I’ve been thinking about this for days. Having been swept away by the scale of this triumph, I’m now sitting afar and wondering how many of us here in Aotearoa can appreciate what life is like for most of the non-whites in South Africa. Not many, if any, as Scribe once said.
I have a disclaimer though. I’ve never gone hungry. I know some kids I went to school with in Northland did. But I saw plenty of it when I worked for six years in South Africa. I’ve no intention of trying to speak for black South Africans who live in poverty. They can speak for themselves, but I hope I can give some New Zealanders who haven’t been there a little insight into black South African lives.
During apartheid, which started in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party forcibly removed Blacks and Coloureds (people of mixed race) from their homes and put them in “townships”. The apartheid government’s thinking was that races were happier with their own. But, of course, their design was cruel, dehumanising, and a powerful tool of oppression.
Its pettiness included separate shops, schools, laws, and separate seats for black and white people on buses and trains. The best of everything was reserved for the whites. The legacy of apartheid continues today as South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world with the gap between the haves and the have-nots more like an abyss.
Despite many inroads by the governing African National Congress to improve living conditions for the millions of South Africans who live in poverty, life for many is still tougher than you can imagine. As it once was for Siya Kolisi. And as it still is for so many others.
Let’s start with Brown Lekekela.
Brown was assisted by local government to open the Green Door Centre — an initiative to help address sexual violence in an area halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria called Diepsloot. A 2016 study by the University of Witwatersrand, sampling 2,600 local men, found that 56 percent of them admitted to either raping or beating a woman in the previous 12 months. It’s notorious and, every now and then, a case captures the nation’s attention. In 2013, two young girls aged three and two were raped and strangled before being stuffed down a communal long drop toilet.
As a result of that hideous, unimaginable crime, I went in, as did other journos, to report on sexual violence. Brown offered hope, born out of desperation. Brown’s Green Door Centre is a simple house, about the size of a single garage in New Zealand with a separate storage shed for donated clothes, food, and basic hygiene packs.
But the most important thing he offers is his time as a counsellor and assistance with the forms to help victims lodge a complaint with the police. He’s always strapped for cash. After the fanfare of the opening of his centre he had occasional visits from officials who noted his needs but rarely delivered. He is constantly on the lookout for donors — relying on them to plug all the gaps.
Imagine that. A rape victim with almost nowhere to go for help, apart from one man who has little to offer apart from his time and determination.
Then there’s Bob Nameng.
He is one of the first people I met in South Africa — a cool, cool dude. He runs SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth). It has a feeding programme and attempts to give local kids some opportunities by giving them access to computers and a small music studio.
Like his famous Rastafarian namesake, Bob has long dreads, and a slow, gentle, thoughtful voice. He’s “the” man in Kliptown, which sits within Soweto, the country’s biggest township.
A staggering 1.27 million people call Soweto home. There is enormous variation within its boundaries — from the tidy, touristy street where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were once neighbours to Kliptown, the forgotten bit.
The Kliptown quarter is small, but it’s a tough, rough place. Cast-iron sheds, open drains, communal taps for washing and drinking, long-drops, illegally tapped electricity cables overhead. Just across the train tracks is a tidy square lined with a two-storey building that, among other things, houses a hub for entrepreneurs.
This is where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955 by the leading anti-apartheid groups, calling for democracy and equality of the races. The contrast between the vision, progress and hope on one side of the tracks, and the deplorable poverty on the other, often struck me.
Back to Bob. He feeds dozens of kids a hearty breakfast of porridge, and a little sugar before sending them over the railway tracks to school. Once they’re done in the classroom, the kids flood back to SKY for its after-school programme. They learn basic tech skills on donated computers, or they sing, rap and compose their music in the studio.
Sometimes tourists drop by for a brief, confronting glimpse of how the other side live. He gives those kids a chance to have a full puku and to be free from their worries, even if it’s just for a while.
Finally there’s Beauty Baloyi.
We met in 2012 when she was 17. She was the smartest girl in her school in rural Limpopo in the north east of South Africa. Like her name, she’s bright-eyed, clever, articulate. She was an orphan being raised by her grandmother.
Beauty’s school had heaps of cracked glass, flaked-off paint, long-drop toilets and next to no resources. Just tables and chairs. No library. The same as more than 90 percent of other public schools. It’s another reminder of how lucky we are in New Zealand, where school libraries are routine. Access to free books built in me a love of learning and literacy — yet millions of South African kids have been robbed of that joy.
Not surprisingly, when Beauty had access to books, she devoured them. Passing her exams with marks in the 80s and 90s. She made it to university and graduated in 2015 with a teaching degree. She’s now teaching maths at a high school in Johannesburg.
Brown, Bob, and Beauty. Three people I met in my time in South Africa, who had experienced trauma, violence, poverty, struggle, unfairness — but who remained hopeful. They are hardworking, generous, loving, clever, and deserving.
They each show their hope in a country that needs it. And, as we celebrate today’s hero, Siya Kolisi, on an international stage, we’re reminded of what is possible when you give people a chance.
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