‘I ran for my life – I did not want to end up the victim of a gang war’
Springbok star Cheslin Kolbe, who faces Exeter with Toulouse on Saturday, seeks to offer hope for youngsters in his hometown
Cheslin Kolbe has been sidestepping trouble all his life. His most famous shimmy was in Yokohama last year when he turned England’s captain Owen Farrell into a Ferris wheel en route to a World Cup-clinching try for South Africa, but while the sporting stakes were perilously high that day, they were nothing compared to the afternoon in Cape Town, many years previously, when his jet heels may well have saved his life. Back then, Kolbe would spend most afternoons in a park which lay between his parents’ and grandmother’s houses in Scottsville, a small suburb of Kraaifontein on the northern edge of Cape Town.
It was a haven for drug dealers and violent gang members, and Kolbe had grown used to witnessing drug deals and minor scuffles. One Friday, at around 2pm, he sensed a shift in the atmosphere. Two rival gangs were squaring off in the middle of the park, attracting attention like a black hole. Something had to give. “They just started shooting each other,” Kolbe says, still incredulous after all these years. “I ran for my life. I didn’t want to be a victim of a gang war. I just started running.”
Kolbe’s childhood was filled with such traumas. He describes seeing a man beaten with a spade and another getting stabbed, and still remembers the helpless feeling of being surrounded by three strangers as a knife was pressed into his stomach, scarcely comprehending the reality that his life hinged on him unclasping a bracelet in time before cold steel punctured his gut. “That was life in Scottsville,” he explains. “It happened on a daily basis. Every day someone was killed or locked up.”
Most damaging of all was the drug trade. Many of Kolbe’s close childhood friends were sucked into the vicious and predictable cycle of addiction – from youthful experimentation, to being cast out of home and into the waiting clutches of dealers who make them start selling themselves. From there it is a short journey to petty crime and, ultimately, more serious misdemeanours. “I lost a lot of friends this way,” Kolbe says. “They never appreciated the little they had. They took the easy way out. They would try and convince me to try it, but I always said, ‘This is not me’. That was not how my parents raised me. They never tried alcohol or drugs so who am I to want to experience things like that? “I never once had a weekend where I was partying. I was in the gym or training since I can remember. Sport was definitely the way out for me.” Kolbe has come a long way since those dangerous days in Scottsville – 7,500 miles, in fact, to Toulouse, for whom he turned in a matchwinning performance in last weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster. Exeter await at Sandy Park on Saturday, and Rob Baxter must already be sleeping fitfully as he wrestles with the conundrum of how to stop him.
Kolbe has worked tirelessly to develop his talent, but his genes have helped. His father Andrew was a talented inside centre during apartheid. Unable to break into the elite end of the sport in South Africa due to the colour of his skin, he had little choice but to pour his energy into shining for his local club Hands and Heart, which he did brilliantly.
“I’ve heard so many people in the Western Cape tell me he was exceptional,” Kolbe says. “He just never got the chance.”
While his friends had their heads turned by other distractions, the younger Kolbe would accompany
‘I wanted to prove people wrong. Coaches, players and fans always told me that I’m too small’
his father to training sessions and weekend matches, busying himself with a ball on the touchline. It is not simply his father, either. Kolbe’s cousin is the men’s 400metres world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk and the pair have been racing since their legs could carry them. “I believe I was faster than him when I was younger,” says Kolbe, who earned South African colours as a hurdler at under-12 and under-13 level.
He then grins and almost reluctantly adds: “To be honest, I’m not sure I actually ever beat him.”
In contrast to athletics, rugby in South Africa is still largely viewed as a bastion of white privilege. Though this mindset is slowly ebbing away
thanks to the changing demographics of the national teams, it still holds true that a player’s chances of reaching the top are bolstered if he attends an elite school. Kolbe earned a scholarship to Brackenfell High School, a mixed state school with annual fees of around £1,100, a pittance compared to the better resourced traditional sporting powerhouses. But Kolbe took heart from his school’s Latin motto of altiora
spero – hoping for higher things – and refused to accept the limitations others placed upon him, not least those who thought he was too small – at 5ft 7in – to thrive in South Africa’s notoriously physical game.
“I’ve always worked to prove people wrong,” Kolbe explains.
“Players, team-mates, coaches and fans have always told me I’m too small. That just made me work harder in the gym. I was in there every day after school.”
His hard work paid off and in 2009 he earned a call-up to the Western Province Under-16 side as a second-choice fly-half for the annual Grant Khomo interprovincial week. He was selected to start in the final against the more fancied Free State outfit, scoring 17 points, including a dropped goal and a try.
This was the same year the British and Irish Lions were last in South Africa. Though he never watched a game live, Kolbe was transfixed with the mythology surrounding the tourists and the pageantry of their loyal supporters.
Adrian Jacobs started the first two Tests for South Africa at outside centre. Like Kolbe, Jacobs had grown up on the unforgiving streets of Kraaifontein. “He was one of us and the first in our community to get that exposure,” Kolbe says of a man who still represents Hands and Heart. “We’ve seen so much talent [wasted]. He created a lot of positivity.”
Then there was Jaque Fourie’s try in the second Test. With South Africa four points adrift with seven minutes to go, the hulking back bulldozed over Ronan O’Gara and brushed off the tackle of Mike Phillips to dot down in the corner. Kolbe says that score, recognised as the best try of 2009, “topped everything” across a season that changed his outlook on the game. This was not merely a pastime inherited from his father. This was now a tangible career path. He made his senior Western Province debut in 2012 and then for the Stormers franchise a year later. His speed and agility made him a natural fit with the Sevens outfit, but once again his size proved to be a barrier for higher honours. In 2017, he signed for Toulouse.
When Rassie Erasmus took over from Allister Coetzee as Springbok coach in early 2018, he did away with a selection policy of picking overseas-based players only if they had more than 30 caps. Players such as Willie le Roux (with Wasps) and Faf de Klerk (Sale) injected international experience by virtue of their time abroad. After running rings around would-be defenders in the Top 14, Kolbe was handed his national debut in Brisbane in September that year.
Under the leadership of Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks espoused an ethos that sought to contextualise rugby. “In South Africa, pressure is not having a job,” Erasmus said after the victory in Yokohama. “Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered.”
Kolbe has long understood this. In 2014, he set up the Be the Difference Foundation, a charity that helps impoverished neighbourhoods in the Western Cape. At the start of the coronavirus lockdown, he played an active role feeding 400 people a week. Now, they are serving as many as 1,700 hot meals to those in need.
“I am so thankful with how blessed I am,” Kolbe says. “Getting here wasn’t easy, but I’ve never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me. I see kids as young as 12 selling drugs and committing crimes in Kraaifontein. It’s 10 times worse than it was. That is why I give back. I tell those kids, ‘I was the same as you’. Every time I step on the field, I’m representing them.”
History-maker: Cheslin Kolbe secured legendary status with his try for the Springboks against England in last year’s World Cup final
European campaign: Cheslin Kolbe put in a match-winning performance for Toulouse against Ulster last weekend