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South Africa Just Named Its First Black Rugby Captain in 127 Years

Next month, the South African rugby team will face off against England in an international match that pits the top players from each country against one another. 

And for the first time ever, the leader of South Africa’s team will be black, CNN reports

Siya Kolisi, 26, grew up in the Zwide township, near the city of Elizabeth, but has risen in the ranks of South African rugby — last year serving as vice-captain and now set to captain the team in three matches against England. 

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He will be the first-ever black captain for South Africa in a Test match — or an international match between two official rugby union teams. In 2006, a black player, Chiliboy Ralepelle, was named captain for a match against a World XV team, which is generally composed of players from various countries assembled on an unofficial basis.  

Kolisi’s election as captain comes as the team aims to fill half its roster spots with players of color by next year’s World Cup, The Guardian reports.  

“We are trying to fix all the wrong things that were done in the past,” Rassie Erasmus, the South Africa rugby union’s coach, said. “I know Siya is a good leader and I am excited about what he can offer us.” 

Read More: 17 Inspiring Quotes From Nelson Mandela

The historical importance of this nomination cannot be overlooked. 

In South Africa, sports continue to be divided along racial lines, nearly 25 years after the end of Apartheid. According to a government study, the percentage of black players in the traditionally white-dominated sports of rugby and cricket remains around 16.5%

South Africa, on the whole, is more than 80% black

“The processes to change the face of sport over the past 20 years have been largely ineffective,” Willie Basson, a member of the country’s sports ministry, said in 2014

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Former South African president Nelson Mandela famously believed that sports could serve to bridge racial divides in the once legally segregated country. 

“Sport has the power to change the world," Mandela said in 1995. “It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” 

Mandela himself advocated for mixed-race cricket teams during Apartheid, BBC reports. Five years later, he handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to white rugby star Francois Pienaar. 

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Perhaps now, the nomination of Kolisi as rugby captain will spearhead further change in the sport — and set an example for future generations of South African athletes. 

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“Every time I step on [the pitch], I want to inspire everyone that's been in my situation,” Kolisi said in a recent interview. "You can always make it, as long as you believe. Your past doesn't determine your future."

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