Kolisi and Musk: two vastly different faces of South Africa

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi takes a selfie with supporters during the Springboks Champions trophy tour in Cape Town after South Africa won the France 2023 Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand. | AFP

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi takes a selfie with supporters during the Springboks Champions trophy tour in Cape Town after South Africa won the France 2023 Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand. | AFP

Published Dec 30, 2023


Durban — Two South Africans were among the most talked about and Googled people in 2023, one revered as much as the other is reviled.

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi grabbed the world’s attention in October, when he led the team to a second consecutive Rugby World Cup (RWC) victory in France, his new home.

Elon Musk, the richest person on the planet, upended the world of social media when he bought the digital platform Twitter, renamed it to X and changed the way it worked.

Books on both men were released this year; Kolisi’s Rise a heart wrenching account of his rags-to-riches story, a boy that overcame impossible odds to become a global role model.

Professor Walter Isaacson’s eponymous biography on Musk reveals the inside story of a rather awkward genius which begs the question: do you have to be “mad” to be a mastermind?

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, chief engineer of SpaceX and owner of X, speaks during the NewYork Times annual DealBook summit in November. | AFP

On paper the two trailblazers could not be more different, even in their features; one visceral, warm, a team player; the other cerebral, disconnected, almost android.

Siyamthanda Kolisi was born on the last day of apartheid, June 16, 1991, to teenagers Phakama and Fezakele. A day after Kolisi’s birth, Parliament repealed apartheid laws. His birth date coincided with the commemoration of the Soweto uprising when hundreds of pupils revolted against the apartheid regime.

Kolisi grew up with gnawing hunger and his paternal grandmother, who raised him, would often go without food for days so he could eat.

It was not unusual for that one meal to be a glass of water laced with sugar. Kolisi went to bed hungry, woke up hungry and would often beg neighbours to give him food. Frequently his only meal would be the one he received at school and then nothing for weekends or school holidays.

He grew up in Zwide, a township in Port Elizabeth which, he writes, looked as if it was permanently half finished. There was little to hope for and children, including Kolisi, were sucked into smoking weed and inhaling petrol fumes to get by in a harsh world.

By the age of eight or nine he was selling alcohol and vegetables on the street and sometimes making bricks to survive.

In the township everyone struggled but where they could the community shared food and resources. There was ubuntu: “There’s a lot less inequality when no-one’s got a lot to start with,” writes Kolisi.

Elon Musk was born into a family of risk-takers and adventurers on June 28, 1971 in Pretoria.

His Canadian grandparents moved to South Africa with his mother Maye and her twin sister Kaye after hearing about an “ancient lost city” and wanting to rediscover it. They settled in Pretoria.

While Maye became a model, Errol, father of Elon, Kimbal and their sister Tosca, was an engineer who built hotels, factories and malls while restoring cars and planes as a hobby. He also traded in illegal emeralds and was a member of the Pretoria City Council.

Elon Musk spent his childhood reading and playing video games.

WALTER Isaacson’s biography on Elon Musk.

What he and Kolisi had in common was violence.

The Springbok captain said that, in Zwide, violence was an everyday occurrence; men would hit men, they would hit women and adults would beat up children. His mom and other women in the family were victims of gender-based violence and he would often wake up from his place on the floor at night to see people fighting outside. While playing in the street one day he picked up several of his mother’s teeth which had been smashed out of her mouth.

“Along with hunger the violence was the strongest and most visceral memories of my childhood,” he wrote.

For Musk, his father Errol was the one who ruled with cruelty, often screaming and demeaning him for hours. There was also bullying at school and veldskool.

Errol repeatedly told his son he was pathetic and, like father like son, Musk was constantly at loggerheads with everyone because of his tendency to call them “stupid”.

Many say Musk’s detachment from emotions was his way of dealing with the abuse.

For Kolisi, it was rugby coach Eric Songwiqi and his club African Bombers that honed his rugby skills and secured him a scholarship at Grey’s school where he finally had regular meals, a bed and even shoes to wear. At the time, his growth was stunted because of malnutrition but that changed with regular meals. Then there were other challenges; learning English so he could understand what was said in class, the violence that consumed him when he went home for weekends and the alcohol that helped him cope as a child and even when he made it as a rugby professional.

Kolisi was determined to change his life and that of others. On the biggest night of his life, hours before he would run onto the field as the first black captain of the Springboks in a Rugby World Cup final in his number six jersey, he and his wife Rachel sat in their hotel room in Japan and made a list of all the things they wanted to do to make the world a better place with his new found prominence.

“Six was the number on the back of Nelson Mandela’s jersey when he took to the field before and after that historic final. Mr Mandela is one of my heroes.‒ I have his face tattooed on my back,‒ so wearing this number is special to me and I never forget that.”

Musk was obsessed with space exploration, electric cars and video games from an early age, and the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

While others daydreamed, he was determined to take man to Mars and even colonise the planet. The riskier the dream, the harder he would work to make it happen. If he came up with an idea and someone couldn’t make it, do it or manufacture it, he would teach himself how.

Musk’s single-mindedness revolutionised the way the world works: from co-founding PayPal, the online payment system, to SpaceX which builds rockets, Tesla which manufactures electric cars, Starlink that provides internet connectivity from space and Neuralink which has just opened its clinical trial to enable disabled volunteers to have brain chip implants which relays signals from their brains to control devices like computers and prosthetic limbs.

Unlike Kolisi’s firm belief in “stronger together”, for Musk, being in control of everything is important. He does not share the limelight or the glory, even if work is done by others and he steps in with cash or through a merger.

A recurrent theme in Isaacson’s book is Musk’s inability to read social cues, lack of empathy and his “demon side”. He fired and hired on a whim. Michael Marks, a Tesla investor and one time CEO, said he often wondered if Musk’s bad behaviour could be separated from his “all-in-drive” that made him succeed. In Isaacson’s book Marks is quoted as saying: “I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs (Apple), which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say ‘that seems to be a package’.”

When Musk took over Twitter, removed the blue verification tick and fired more than 80% of its staff, the backlash was instant and millions of users and advertisers started moving away in search of other platforms. Musk shrugged it off even after admitting that paying $44 billion (R824bn) for it was too much. Since his takeover the microblogging platform has been accused of right wing leanings.

Musk’s personal life is as chaotic as he is drawn to mean, messy relationships and alienating friends.

SIYA Kolisi’s autobiography Rise.

Throughout his book, Rise, Kolisi acknowledges the role various people played in his life: his gogo who died in his arms, his coaches, his pastor, coach Rassie Erasmus and his teammates. His wife Rachel with whom he shared so many precious moments of his life; his traditional Xhosa initiation, the first time he ate Mexican and when Rassie made the announcement that Kolisi was the Springbok captain.

“I, Siyamthanda Kolisi, am not a self-made man. I’m a mosaic of the stories of many communities and individuals that have showed me goodwill,” he writes.

He ends his book with a personal statement listing his core values – spending time with God, his marriage, fatherhood, community, and impacting people and action plan.

It also details his life mission and goals for the next five to seven years, which includes building financial security for his family on and off the field because his career span is limited, empowering communities to make an income and build generational wealth and “God willing”, to win the Rugby World Cup again, a dream which became reality since the book was released before the 2023 tournament.

For Musk, though, the final frontier is still out there waiting to be shifted yet again.

Independent on Saturday