By Alex Pennington
“We care for each other. We care for our country. I will do this over and over again.” Siyamthanda Kolisi, after winning the 2023 World Cup
After the final whistle declared that South Africa had won back-to-back World Cups, Siyamthanda Kolisi ran across the rugby field towards Cheslin Kolbe. Kolbe, the hero of 2019’s final, was yellow-carded in the last eight minutes trying to stem the All Black’s relentless assault. While in the bin on the other side of the field from his team-mates, he did not, could not, lift his face out of his jersey.
In the ordinary moments of our lives, we miss chances to care. In extraordinary moments, like winning a World Cup, we would be forgiven for being lost in elation or collapse from the release of strain. Kolisi is different, he ran across the field as he held his forlorn team-mate in mind, and ran towards him in an embrace.
The team’s adage since Kolisi became Captain in 2016 was to win first so they have the authority to give hope. The AmaBokke, prone to generosity, offer two meanings of hope.
The first meaning of hope is to show that it is possible to overcome obstacles, even extreme obstacles, to realise a dream. Once a person has overcome severe obstacles it is like they are dressed with an aura of inspiration. They become a living symbol of hope that helps us to believe it is possible to overcome our own obstacles. In other words, they become heroes.
The narrative arc of such heroism is romantic. They are Hollywood’s favourite kinds of stories. However, romantic arcs do not offer a vision of the hope that can arise even when the hero fails, when the obstacle is greater than they are, which poses the question, are heroes still an inspiration if they fail? I believe so. Tragic heroes are clothed in another kind of inspirational cloth.
When I think of a tragic hero, I remember Desmond Tutu. I remember how, as the Chair of the first session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, after a few hours of testimony, he wept. He did not advise, philosophise, or console. He wept.
We might say that Tutu could call on his powers of empathy to dream himself into another’s life so he could share their pain. Empathy is considered a “soft” virtue until you realise how hard it is. When empathy stops at a border then empathy becomes loyalty. If I try to empathise with the pain of someone I’ve hurt, it can inspire guilt (“I” did something wrong) or shame (“I” am a bad person). If I try to imagine the pain of another, I might feel fear (“I” am in danger), sanctimony (“I” would never do that), indifference (“I” don’t care) or, even, contempt (“I” would never be that weak, stupid, etc.). None of those feelings are empathetic. Empathy for someone who is hurt might inspire anger towards their perpetrator, but if that anger gets trapped in an idea, then anger can assume its ugliest form: hatred.
Kurt Vonnegut noted that hatred can make you feel taller than cocaine, and it even built a half-starved, broken, bankrupt country into a Third Reich. Empathy is painful, our heart can break, it makes us “weak”, but we become more humane through empathy. This is the inspiration that Tutu was dressed with.
I wonder, then, if empathy is less a tool of the imagination or an exercise of the mind and something more to do with a flowering in the heart. Maybe it is not the beginning of an effort but an effort’s end. Maybe empathy is a fruition, the flowering, of care. If hatred is ugly, empathy is beautiful.
The second meaning of hope is that when Siya says he cares, that the team cares, it is through care that we come to know another’s joy, fear, shame, grief, desire, who and what they love, their life, most intimately and profoundly. It is through care that we cross historical borders that we all inherit – be it race, region, class, religion, or gender – and realise empathy. When care crosses a border, finally, a person is clothed with a quieter aura of inspiration, and they offer another kind of hope.
When Rassie Erasmus wept for Makazole Mapimpi, and Eben Etzebeth declared his love for Siyamthanda Kolisi, we witnessed care having crossed a historical border. Care’s flowering offers a glimpse into another kind of possibility, and opens another kind of horizon: one day, even if our ancestors have been at war, it is possible to play with each other as equals.
Expressions of empathy are a concentrated radiance that, much like a great work of art, move us. These AmaBokke are beautiful because of their courage and care. Their empathy is a light.
They show us a way.