Babalwa Latsha on Humility, Accountability, Exemplarity and Selflessness as Key Lessons

Babalwa Latsha, 11 November 2020

The Springbok Women captain shares some of the critical life lessons she has learnt as a successful yet growing woman rugby player.

It is believed that the game of rugby originated in England in 1823. Fast forward to modern times, rugby has evolved to be loved, enjoyed and played all over the world; uniting people from all walks of life, different ethnicity, shapes and sizes.

In my view, rugby is a sport that physically caters to everyone. The tall ones will find a home in the lock position, the short and stocky in the hooker position. The vocal but puny in stature are most likely to find their place in the scrumhalf, and so on. I found my niche in the prop position – a position likely to be occupied by the strong and bulky.

My rugby career was born in 2014 and I have had the privilege to play at all possible levels and captained teams at those levels. It is at the University of the Western Cape where my love affair with the game of rugby began – a beautiful romance that inspired three consecutive inter-provincial league title victories, a World Cup qualification with the Springbok Women, and a place in the history books as the first African professional women rugby player.

Over the years – just six to be exact – I have travelled the world, met and engaged with new people and embraced them and their diversity. With that, I have picked up some valuable life lessons that I still cherish to this day. Rugby is a way of life after all.

Over time I have realised that to lead is not necessarily to be loved, be popular or be followed. It is more than just giving ‘braveheart’ speeches.  Leadership has been about bringing the best out of others by being the best that I can be. Sometimes this is to the annoyance of some. I have embraced that responsibility and remained appreciative of it.

One of the major features of leadership is accountability. I must account to myself and to my team. When times get tough and things are not going our way, the team morale takes a blow.  It has been my responsibility as the leader to bring out the best out of the team even when the chips are down.

This means I must hold myself to higher standards by being exemplary in my conduct on and off the field.  Similarly, when everything is going according to plan, and the team is on a high, it is still my responsibility to remain humble and level-headed, spearheading the notion of ‘humility in victory’, which I strongly believe in. When we are successful I am still to account, however, this time quietly.

Leadership inspires. I have been inspired to inspire good in others, opening their eyes and hearts to the greatness that is within them. They, too, must realise and understand that they are leaders in their own right. They must lead from where they are by being better humans, better women, and better rugby players. When this happens, that’s when I know that I have done my job.

I have had the honour of being surrounded and shared the field over time with exceptional women – women who have moulded me into an all-round improved human being and athlete. There can be no scrum without the forward pack, and no sizzling side-steps and fancy footwork without the lovely backs. We can never cross the try line without each other. No ruck can be formed and no set-piece performed.  Everyone has a role to play.

I have always valued the presence of each and every team member because I have always understood the significance of teamwork. Rugby is and will always be a team sport. Like one of our gwijos (songs) go ‘we live together, we die together. A tackle is a tackle’.

To me a team is not only the fifteen players taking the field on match-day, but it is also those on the bench awaiting their chance. A team includes the water girl, the ball boy, the bus driver, the security guard at the stadium gates, and every supporter. The people who always have words of encouragement and positivity to share are part of the team.

I have found family in the teams that I have been part of. That family consists of many sisters with whom I share a special connection and a common life story – a story of triumph, empowerment, strength and ambition.

Forging a different path is never an easy task. Changing a narrative in my view is a lifelong endeavour. In one of the many conversations I have had with my mentor, Lwazi Mzozoyana, I have come to the realisation that one of the difficulties also lay in having the new narrative accepted as the new norm. Once one has broken the barrier and forged a new way – so great that it is carved in history – the greater challenge is that it be accepted and recognised, not necessarily popular.

For me, acceptance is something that I have struggled with throughout my teens. I was quite a different young girl growing up. I never conformed to what was generally perceived as normal for a girl. I was slightly taller, a little bit more muscular. Likened and even mistaken to a boy.  That made me different and  that ‘difference’ made me stand out like a saw thumb. I yearned to be accepted and somewhat fit in.

The turning point came when I started playing rugby. Rugby taught me to accept that I was different, to love that difference and to allow myself to stand out boldly.  It was at that point where I embraced being a female rugby player fully. Our special physical build as sportswomen, particularly woman rugby players, is one of the things that allow us to be the best.

Caster Semenya is the best at what she does and has revolutionised her sport by forging a new norm – her physicality contributing to that. Serena Williams is the best tennis player and she, too, has blazed a new trail for her sport – a new norm – similarly her physique contributing to that.

In a world that accepts mediocrity, objectifies and sexualises women, and is rather prejudiced to anything different, standing tall and proudly as well conditioned sportswomen is yet to be fully accepted.  We are not ‘manly’, too muscular or too strong but we are excellent sportswomen who continue to defy norms and set new standards. We have accepted excellence and physical prowess as the new norm.

My career is still on an upward trajectory and I am humbled and appreciative of all the lessons that I have learned and still learning. I’m also appreciative of the people who have dedicated their time, resources and efforts in building the well rounded sportsperson that I am today. The journey continues and so too does the struggle to break through and break down barriers.

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