Makazole Mapimpi starred in the World Cup final in 2019 against England

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Makazole Mapimpi is in pain. Not the sort which shows up on a scan or can be dulled by an ice bath, but the kind of gnawing, gut-wrenching pain for which there is no known cure – that caused by grief.  In 2004, when he was 14, Mapimpi’s mother died in a car accident, leaving him under the care of his grandmother as his father had abandoned the family long before. Five years later his sister succumbed to an illness in her brain. Then his brother lost his life after he was electrocuted stealing electricity cables. 

Mapimpi has largely nursed this trauma on his own, forging a flourishing rugby career that has led him to make 14 appearances for South Africa, including one in the World Cup final against England which he marked with a try – the first South African to do in the game’s showpiece occasion. He will earn a 15th on Saturday against the British and Irish Lions, yet his success does not mean the pain has receded. 

“I’ve been through a lot,” he says in hushed tones. “When people spoke about family stuff, when I was young, I would keep quiet. It would hit me. I would realise that I didn’t have this at home. Little things like that would touch me and it would make me go quiet. Sometimes it would stay with me for a few days.” 

Mapimpi’s formative years would have been challenging enough had he gone to sleep at night with a full stomach and a comfortable bed to lie on. He often had neither growing up in the village of Tsholomnqa in the rural Eastern Cape province. This is a region of the country that has largely remained untouched by the African National Congress’s ‘trickle-down’ economics, and hunger is a familiar feeling.

“When you’re from the rural villages, it’s hard to see yourself achieving big things,” Mapimpi says. “Everyone has dreams. But to actually believe deep down that you’ll achieve them is not something that feels natural. You have to tell yourself lies sometimes.” 

Mapimpi’s story of struggle and triumph is a familiar one to South Africans, especially among this crop of Springboks. The team’s captain Siya Kolisi had a similarly difficult start. But while Kolisi was lifted out of his poverty aged 12, when a scout identified his potential and facilitated a scholarship at the prestigious Grey High School, a talent factory that has produced dozens of international athletes, Mapimpi remained in obscurity. He graduated from an unknown school and never played representative rugby. The late commentator Kaunda Ntunja once described Mapimpi as the player who had come from the “most hopeless situation in the history of Springbok rugby.” 

Few would dispute that, but how does Mapimpi feel about that assertion? “I am comfortable with my place in the South African story,” he says, his voice growing louder. “It is something that will always be a part of me. I was hard on myself at times. I would sometimes wonder if it was because of something that I did. Maybe did I deserve it? But you learn not to think like that.” On several occasions Mapimpi describes himself as “lucky” – not in the material sense, but that he was able to remain focussed on his training while other youths in his village turned to drink and drugs. That he was lucky to be blessed with the right collection of physical gifts that have given him the opportunity to score 14 tries from as many Tests. Surely, however, he deserves some of the credit himself? 

“I do, but I don’t go around telling people,” he says. “I know I changed my life. So when you ask me if there were people who changed my life, there is one answer. It’s me. I was alone. No one could take me here. No one could carry me. I had help, but the responsibility was with me.” 

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On 6 September 2019, two weeks before the opening game of the World Cup, Mapimpi demonstrated his willingness to shoulder responsibilities beyond the confines of his sport. After scoring the first of three tries he would register against Japan, he ran directly to a pitchside camera and brandished a message he had written on the strapping around his wrist: “NENE RIP”. 

It was a tribute to the 19-year-old student Uyinene Mrwetyana, whose rape and murder a month earlier had triggered nationwide protests under the hashtag #AmINext. The horrific incident was a flashpoint in a country where, according to the independent fact-checking organisation Africa Check, a woman is murdered every three hours and where an average of 116 rapes are reported every day. 

“A lot of people listen to me and what I am saying,” Mapimpi says when asked why he chose to use his platform in the manner that he did. “Sometimes you don’t think twice when you want to do something important. I didn’t care what people were going to say.” 

Last year Mapimpi launched a 21-day campaign to raise awareness around gender-based violence and encouraged South African men to post 40-second videos of themselves pledging their support. “I know the pain of what rape and gender-based violence can to to people,” he says. “Many South Africans do. It’s important for men to be the ones to speak about this. It’s not for women to ask men not to hit them.” Mapimpi was also motivated by personal experience. The rape of a generous neighbour who would often assist with meals when food was scare left an indelible mark on Mapimpi. The culprit was arrested but soon released. His presence perpetuated the pain felt by his victim and those close to her. 

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The tragedies that have littered Mapimpi’s path to the summit of his sport have not served as stumbling blocks. He says he is “glad” that they happened, and that they have made him stronger as a result: “To be honest, I forget about those things. I don’t take them with me. If someone wants to have a deep chat with me, or someone wants to know more, I’m happy to share. But it doesn’t weigh my heart down. Now I can talk about it with a smile.” 

This Lions tour was designed to provide some cheer after a bleak 18 months, but events have once again intervened: first, in the form of violent protests across South Africa which have left over 100 dead and £750million worth of damage; then, a third wave of Covid-19 which has triggered another lockdown. Businesses are failing. Youth unemployment has reached a staggering 75 per cent. 

Faith in government has all but evaporated. So would a Springbok series victory galvanise a fragmented country as it did in 2019? “Maybe," he says, before allowing a small smile to play across his lips. "But first we have to win.”