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Rachel Kolisi On The Rise

Rachel Kolisi is showing the nation that there’s nothing stronger, more powerful or more inspiring than a woman determined to rise

Slumped over on the tiny ledge of a dark-wood wardrobe, Rachel Kolisi is finished. She has tired eyes, and is in the midst of an unflattering, exhausted exhale from a long day of delayed flights, late arrivals and the rush of trying to get back on schedule. It may sound as though I’ve chosen to describe an inopportune moment on set, but this little slice of reality is actually a candid capture that Rachel posted on Instagram after returning from the SA Sports Awards, and one of my (and around 200 000 other South Africans’) favourite posts.

In an age where many are aiming for a perfectly pretty Instagram feed with a curated aesthetic, poses that create the ideal feminine silhouette and not a single hair out of place, let alone a visible blemish, Rachel is choosing to show the real and counter the comparison epidemic that exists among women.

‘Rise was birthed from a place of desperation,’ shares Rachel about her female empowerment organisation Rise Women, which she started alongside her personal trainer and friend Tammy Rawstron in an effort to uplift, inspire and create a safe space for women to fight through their insecurities and feelings of inferiority. ‘Just before I met Tam, I had posted a picture of myself at about four months post-partum after my second child. My body was looking terrible and I was trying really hard to go to the gym and get healthy again, but at the same time was so conscious of what I looked like that I would cover myself in baggy gym clothes or not perform exercises correctly because I was worried that my arms would look flabby or my stomach would stick out,’ confides Rachel. ‘I started noticing that my friends were experiencing the same thing in the gym, and I decided that I no longer wanted to be a part of this idea that you’re not good enough because your body is not perfect enough or that you’re not acceptable to society because you don’t look a certain way. Who sets that standard? Who decides those things? I think it comes from a place
of what we are fed on social media and what a problem that actually is and what we’re exposing ourselves to.’

This has become one of the essential teachings at Rise, as Rachel and Tammy work with women from all walks of life to dispel the toxic habit of comparison. ‘We try to educate women to be more aware of what they allow in and compare themselves to. Our goal is to cancel out the whole idea of comparison,’ Rachel shares passionately.

Rachel’s love and passion for uplifting and inspiring others is palpable, and throughout our interview it’s hard not to get distracted by the fervent nods and murmurs of approval from the glam team who are at work around us and hanging on Rachel’s every word of self-love and acceptance. Rachel, having never been one for make-up or designer garb, trusts the team implicitly. As a small-town girl from Grahamstown, about one and a half hours out of Port Elizabeth, her interests have always lived elsewhere.

‘I loved being on farms and was always crazy about horses and did a lot of competitive horse riding. I loved the safe feeling that a small town like Grahamstown offered, and being able to be out and about and playing in the streets as a child are some of my favourite memories,’ reminisces Rachel.

Shortly after finishing her schooling, Rachel moved to Cape Town but couldn’t afford to study and didn’t have the grades to qualify for a bursary so she began working every job she could. Waitress, flyer girl, bartender … all a far cry from the whirlwind life she lives now.

In the last month alone, she’s been to Durban, Joburg, Paris and of course came home from spending four weeks in Japan supporting her husband Siya Kolisi, whose win with the Springboks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup united the nation and still has South Africans reeling with pride.

The couple met in 2012 and married in August of 2016. ‘The growth in our relationship has been so special,’ shares Rachel. ‘We started out as two kids who didn’t know what we were doing with our lives to now having the opportunity to change a nation together and really impact South Africa. The journey that it’s taken for that to be the case is really special and I’m just so proud of us and some of the decisions and sacrifices that we’ve made in order to get to where we are.’

The two also raise four children together, two of whom are Siya’s younger half-siblings. Liyema and Liphelo were sadly left orphaned after the passing of Siya’s mother in 2009, and were officially adopted by the couple in 2014. In 2015, Rachel gave birth to their first child Nicholas Siyamthanda and in 2017 welcomed their youngest Keziah Qaqamba. ‘They’re all very different, but I love that they’re all so individual in who they are. They all have strong personalities. Nic and Liyema have soft souls, but my girls are fierce! You’re not going to mess with them one day,’ notes Rachel proudly. ‘I love how dynamic they all are. They are all South Africans, and are different colours and of different backgrounds but they would kill for each other and I love that quality about them; that they’re so unified. It’s a great example of what we should be like as a nation.’

Rachel’s family is her biggest support structure as she ventures to continue expanding on Rise’s footprint for social change with Tammy. ‘Siya has been my number-one fan, before he won the world cup he was allowed to come to all the Rise events, now it’s a little bit too hectic, but before he’d always be behind the scenes with his camera. My kids have also been incredible and have had to sacrifice time with their parents because of my and Siya’s travels for work but they’re always so positive and so sweet about it.’

Holistic wellness, community building and upliftment are at the core of what Rise stands for and hopes to impart on the women that attend the events or purchase the transformation guides that Rachel and Tammy have produced. ‘Women flock to Rise and it’s not because it’s me or because they think they are going to have the best workout and get into shape. It’s normally because they are in a very desperate place and need help and are in search of a community,’ explains Rachel. ‘Some women come to us afterwards bawling their eyes out saying that it was everything they needed. They come with these stories of either being raped or currently in an abusive relationship or having eating disorders or being suicidal and it’s just great that they can be in a room full of women knowing that they are not the only ones in that situation and can see what it looks like to get out of that place. We’re not here to pet you in your depression, we’re here to help you grow and get out of that.’ Seeing the progress that the Rise Women have made from attending their first event fills Rachel with pride as she speaks of their successes with endearment and hope for a better future for them all.

In addition to the incredible work Rise does through its events, the team has also taken on a number of other social causes, including creating business opportunities for the homeless. Timmy and Phakitso were the first in this venture after Rachel and Tammy were amazed by the homeless men’s creativity. Despite living on the side of Table Mountain and on the streets in Sea Point, the men have managed to create beautiful lamps and sculptures from ice lolly sticks. Rise has helped the men get their business off the ground and they’ve subsequently sold their products to local restaurants and international clients.

Rachel and Tammy are also planning on expanding their efforts to assist with adoption and fostering of children and educating people around this, and will be going into crime and drug-affected communities where women’s bodies have become a product. They want to help teach them their worth and improve their situations.

As our interview comes to a close, we circle back to the topic of social media. I’ve just asked about misconceptions and how the media and social-media trolls can shape public perception of someone into something completely different to reality. ‘I don’t actually care what people’s misconceptions about me are,’ admits Rachel, who despite having had to deal with her fair share of hateful comments both on- and offline, remains unguarded, endearing and unapologetic. ‘I feel like
I share who I am as a person, what I’m into and what I believe on my Instagram as much as possible. If people haven’t managed to capture that, I don’t really feel the need to set them straight.’

We finish chatting just as the make-up artist applies a final swish of lipstick, and Rachel is radiant as ever, but it’s not from the beautiful white dress and cascading curls or even the perfectly applied face of make-up. What Rachel exudes is passion, kindness and a genuine desire to help and inspire everyone around her.


Words: Bianca Hartel | Images: Samantha Pinto