It’s easy to romanticise stories of success and achievement that originate from hardship. The narrative of ‘misfortune – hard work – deserved success’ is ingrained in our story-telling DNA. It appeals to us, it feels deserved, and gives those that are born into success a sense that they got there through perseverance and skill rather than pure luck.
When assessing ‘rags to riches’ narratives from the vantage point of our protagonists’ eventual success, the initial hardship that they faced is seen as a necessary evil; a character-building blip that was alright, in the end – because in the end, it was alright.
In my opinion, this romanticising tone has been appropriated in the writing surrounding Siya Kolisi and his phenomenal rise to success.
Robert Kitson in The Guardian describes Kolisi as, “the ultimate example of just how transformative sport can be.
“How many of us,” he asks, “would have had the energy, desire, ambition and sheer bloody-mindedness to conquer the world from where Kolisi’s journey commenced?”
In November last year, The Times led a story on Kolisi with the headline “South Africa Captain Siya Kolisi’s Rise From Deprivation To The Brink Of Glory”.
Meanwhile, almost every story I’ve read doing a profile on the South African captain mentions that fact that as a young boy his favourite toy was a brick that he used to imitate the toy cars of his other friends.
What are these examples attempting to infer? That we should celebrate Kolisi’s poverty because it made him the man he is today?
Whilst I’m sure this is not the intent; the effect of this reporting is that is presents Kolisi’s experience of childhood poverty as a convenient detail in a story of hardship and human perseverance. To put it simply: the eventuality of the ‘riches’ justifies the presence of the ‘rags.’
What about those who do not enjoy such fortune? Those for whom no amount of “desire, ambition and sheer bloody-mindedness” will change their lot?
These are the people that Kolisi has been focused on since before he lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy, these are the people who must feel the legacy of World Cup victory.
During an interview with Rugby World, Kolisi reasoned that education and coaching rather than sporting stardom was more important for those living in townships. That less fortunate children need opportunities available to them where they live and where their families are.
This is why, this week, work has started on building a rugby field for local children to play on at the Mbekweni Youth Centre near Cape Town; representing the start of Kolisi’s project to change the realities for those living in South Africa’s poorest areas. In a country with such a vast gap between rich and poor, the real legacy of the World Cup should be felt by those who have previously been neglected rather than on the rugby pitch.
Kolisi’s story is, obviously, one of personal triumph and exceptionalism, but to romanticise this narrative whilst so many others are living in unnecessary poverty is irresponsible reporting.
Written by Will Sewell.