Cheslin Kolbe says sport was his escape from violence: ‘Playing rugby barefoot in the street gave me hope.’Photo: Alex Livesey/World Rugby/Getty Images
“As I sit here, something is definitely happening that is the same as the mental image I had growing up,” says Cheslin Kolbe of the danger he senses on a quiet morning in Cape Town. As a boy, Kolbe saw people being shot and stabbed on the Cape Flats and describes the horrific murder of a childhood friend, whose tongue was also cut out, just before the Springbok wing won the first of his two World Cup winners’ medals in 2019.
Kolbe is now one of the best and richest players in world rugby. During a break at home before returning to Japan to play again for Tokyo Sungoliath, the 30-year-old is in the mood to reflect on his extraordinary journey from poverty and gangland violence and to explain how rugby has the ability to to offer hope. in a brutalized country.
But Kolbe admits that the haunting memories are not easy to shake: “That’s the sad part. An image sticks in your mind, but it can help you humble yourself. It can bring you back to where you came from, what it takes to overcome challenges in your life. I know I am now in a much happier position than so many in my community or across South Africa.”
Kolbe insists he also has many fond memories – including the rapturous reception the Springboks received last year when they returned home from France to show the cheerful black and white South Africans the World Cup trophy they had just retained.
“2019 was huge, but it doesn’t come close to last year,” he says. “We saw incredible scenes with all the smiles on people’s faces, from young to old, showing how rugby brings so much joy to South Africa. For us as players, having that impact and those memories will last forever. It only happens once every four years, so we have a responsibility to use our platform so that there is hope and inspiration every day.”
Kolbe’s desire to help others in often hopeless places is driven by his past dominated by violence, drugs and gang wars. “As funny or bad as it sounds, if you wanted to see action in the Cape Flats, you went to Scottsville, where my grandmother lived. There was always something happening and you were entertained by people arguing, getting drunk and as kids you wanted to experience something different in life.”
Describing the area as “a real ghetto,” everything changed for Kolbe “one Friday after school when I went there with friends who became gang members. I still have a good relationship with them because they are my friends that I grew up with.” But after they got into an altercation, “this man pulled out a gun and started shooting. I ran all the way in the opposite direction to my grandmother’s house. I couldn’t talk, I was in tears, I was shaking.”
Kolbe shakes his head about ‘the big gangsterism, the selling of drugs, people being stabbed and murdered. That was normality. Another time I went to visit my grandmother and was stopped by two boys 100 meters from her house. They said nothing. They just touched the chain I was wearing, took out a knife and held it against my ribs. The moment I gave it to him, I started running to my grandmother. I was 12 and you can’t compete with guys from prison.”
His remarkable speed and sporting talent saved Kolbe and he was eventually offered a rugby scholarship. “Sports was my escape,” he says. “I came from Kraaifontein, but playing touch rugby barefoot on the street gave me hope. But if my parents hadn’t sacrificed so much, or for the sport, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Most of Kolbe’s friends did not escape. “Wayne was one of my best friends and growing up we did everything together every day. He was probably the quietest person you can get, one of the most talented athletes I have seen in cricket, athletics and rugby. But he didn’t have the same family stability that I did. He was approached by gangsters and they gave you a T-shirt, a pair of shoes and some money to take care of your family. They make you feel good about yourself, but you are not aware that you have to give something back to them. It started with small things, delivering drugs, selling drugs, but you get so deep that you owe them money and you rob people to pay them back.
“It was so sad for us to see how he went from selling drugs to using them, and how he became one of the big dogs in gang wars, and how he was threatened. I always contacted his family when I was back in South Africa to see how he was doing because he was in and out of prison.
In 2019, when Kolbe was on the verge of winning the World Cup for South Africa, he received the shocking news about Wayne. “He was murdered in front of so many others in an open field, tortured by cutting off all his fingers, toes, ears, tongue and everything. I was still in France when I got the news that he had been murdered by some gang members. It was so sad because we had been so close as children.
Kolbe looks up at the zoom screen, his face drawn with pain. But he is quick to point out that “there are so many others in similar positions and they need guidance and motivation. So when I get back home, I try to spend as much time as possible giving back and hopefully with the foundation that my wife and I are setting up, we can do a lot more.”
His status on the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa is now enormous. But for years Kolbe was dismissed as too small. He stands 6ft 4in tall and despite his electric speed and talent, the colossal physicality of modern rugby meant few coaches believed he could play internationally. He was told he had to become a scrum-half to make any progress.
But the move to France in 2017 proved Kolbe’s try-scoring brilliance and a year later, South Africa’s inspiring new coach Rassie Erasmus picked the diminutive wing in his starting XV. Kolbe has since played 31 Tests, scored 14 tries and won consecutive World Cups. It is an admirable record and it underlines how much he owes to France.
“I was welcomed and accepted in France with open arms because of my status and the position I want to play in. I landed on a Tuesday and played my first Top 14 game that Saturday, not knowing the language or the game plan. Toulouse’s coach, Ugo Mola, had a lot of confidence in me and that has developed me into the player I am today. The Top 14 is such a physical competition and playing against the [Pacific] Island boys, and the big French boys, every weekend is a battle. I became more physical and stronger on defense.”
Kolbe also grew away from rugby. “It was wonderful to record as much as possible off the field. I wanted to be open-minded and learning the culture and language was one of the good decisions [he and his wife Layla] made because we gained more respect from the French public. It wasn’t easy because I was only 23. But we had just had a daughter, so it was all about wanting the best for my family.”
Have his French friends forgiven him for indicting a Thomas Ramos conversion that ultimately made the difference in last October’s World Cup quarter-final when South Africa beat the hosts 29-28 in Paris? “I’m not sure if I’m the most popular man in France,” Kolbe says with a smile, “but I still have a lot of good relationships with my old French teammates and coaches.”
Kolbe also scored a try, but his speed and timing in blocking Ramos’ kick were even more memorable. “There’s been a lot of talk about whether it was legal, but we do all the analysis and the hard work and I played with Thomas at Toulouse for four seasons. So I knew his kicking routine, because I kicked with him a lot. It was all about split seconds, when to pull the trigger and go. I am convinced that I did everything by the book.”
South Africa won the World Cup by the smallest margin as they won by one point each time in their three knockout matches. “We just stay in the fight and never give up. That is what our team stands for.”
But in the last ten minutes of the final against New Zealand, Kolbe was sent to the sin bin. “I was helpless and felt empty,” he admits, before adding another perspective. “At the same time, I firmly believe that receiving that yellow card was God’s calling to have another input for the team – namely praying for the country and the boys who fight there. So as stressful and tough as it was, these things happen for a reason. At the final whistle I looked straight into the crowd and saw my parents, my wife and the children in tears. After the relief came the satisfaction that all the sacrifice and hard work had paid off.”
Kolbe now plays club rugby in Japan, where he emphasizes: “I’m having a great time. Japanese people are so hospitable, polite and respectful. And the club has been great for me and my family. Layla and the kids enjoyed it too, but we have now settled them back in Cape Town so they can go to school here. I will travel back and forth [between Tokyo and Cape Town] That won’t be easy, but it’s good for the children to be home.”
As for the level of rugby in Japan, Kolbe says, “the competition has grown tremendously. It’s so competitive and if some teams played against teams from the Top 14 or the Premier League it would be an uphill battle. The Japanese are so open to learning and we can learn from them too. I haven’t seen any players run like the Japanese boys run on a rugby field. It’s insane. They like to work hard.”
Kolbe will continue to play Test rugby and, he says, “the plan is to be part of the Springboks for as long as possible, hopefully until 2027. [when South Africa will try to win a third successive World Cup]. But I’m not getting ahead of myself. My focus now is on Japan to make sure I play great rugby there. What happens next is a bonus.”
When he returns home, Kolbe will return to the Cape Flats, where he witnessed so much violence and despair, and try to help. Kolbe nods after an intense hour-long conversation and says calmly but firmly: “If I can reach out, talk and change one person’s life, not only is that an achievement that brightens my day, but it can skip to so many others. . We have to keep trying to help.”