Who is Bongi Mbonambi, the star at the centre World Cup racism storm

Bongi Mbonambi ‘had mostly white friends’ at private school pool parties and ‘colour meant nothing to him’, his mum says, but now South Africa’s hooker is at the centre of Tom Curry ‘white ****’ racism storm

  • Bongi Mbonambi has been cleared to play in the World Cup final for South Africa
  • The hooker has been at the centre of a racism storm after the semi-final
  • Mbonambi has overcome the odds to compete at the top level of the sport 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

South Africa’s Bongi Mbonambi will line up in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday against New Zealand after spending a week in the spotlight.

The hooker has made a significant contribution to the Springboks run to successive World Cup finals, but comments he allegedly made on the field last weekend have made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

England flanker Tom Curry complained to referee Ben O’Keeffe during that Mbonambi had called him a ‘white ****’ during the match, which saw South Africa beat Steve Borthwick’s men 16-15.

The sport’s governing body World Rugby confirmed on Friday that their investigation into the incident has closed, with England also alleging Curry was previously abused by Mbonambi in an Autumn Nations series clash in 2022.

England have reacted angrily to the end of the investigation, while South Africa are relieved their sole specialist hooker is available to face the All Blacks.

South African star Bongi Mbonambi has been cleared to play in the Rugby World Cup final

Tom Curry had reported the alleged abuse comment made by Mbonambi in the semi-final

World Rugby closed the investigation into the incident and a claim Curry was also abused by Mbonambi in an Autumn Nations match in 2022, pictured

South Africa scrum coach Daan Human was among those to have rallied around Mbonambi this week, describing him as a ‘very important piece of our puzzle’ and a ‘humble guy’.

‘Bongi has been part of this group for the last six years. He’s a very, very important piece of our puzzle,’ Human said.

‘He’s a very, very humble guy, is down to earth and is a hard worker. He’s a very calm guy, a well spoken guy.

‘He’s a great character and is definitely a guy I would love to have in my team, in our team. That’s it. What I can say about him, he’s a great guy.

‘He is definitely one of our leaders in the group as well.’

The 32-year-old grew up in the city of Bethlehem in South Africa. His parents Mpinda and Nombulelo worked as a policeman and nurse respectively, with Mbonambi claiming he had a ‘military style’ upbringing.

Nombulelo revealed that Mbonambi’s love of rugby was as a consequence of him attending a largely white private school in the city. The family had wanted him to attend an English and Afrikaans speaking schools to give him a better chance of having a career.

‘There he was introduced to rugby, as you know white schools are much popular in rugby,’ she told SABC in a 2019 interview. ‘He had white friends who introduced him and he never looked back. 

Mpinda and Nombulelo Mbongeni pose next to a photo of their son, with his mum claiming his love of rugby came from him attending a largely white private school

Mbongeni is married to Anastacia with the couple having a daughter called Esa

Mbonambi’s height was seen as an issue in his youth career but he still reached the top level

‘He was a very humble boy and he never had many friends here in the community. Every time he would be seeing his white friends from town, whether for a swimming party or pyjama parties.

‘He was always at school and world come back tired, so we would fight as he would just want to sleep.

‘I can tell you it never did anything to Bongi that he had white friends. He went along with them very well, even now he has white friends and they get on very well. 

‘I have never had a complaint from him that he was bullied or was rejected or discriminated against. Colour does not mean anything to Bongi.’

While his brother Mpiliso was seen as a talented football player and his young sister Mpumi played netball for the University of Johannesburg, Mbongeni’s talent was spotted on the rugby field. 

Mbongeni was part of South Africa’s rugby team at the Junior World Cup back in 2011. He played for the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls at youth level after they awarded him a scholarship. Mbongeni claimed the breakthrough helped to remove the risk of going down the wrong path in Bethlehem and potentially joining a gang.

He was forced to overcome the odds to compete at the top level of the sport, having noticed he was small for his position at 5ft 9in when at the Blue Bulls.

‘There was never a time when I doubted my ability, even when some of the coaches were telling me I’d never progress beyond the age-group level,’ Mbongeni told SA Rugby Magazine in a 2020 interview.

South Africa’s scrum coach Daan Human has said Mbonambi is a key part of their puzzle

Mbonambi was a key part of South Africa’s 2019 World Cup winning squad in Japan

The hooker played at the tournament a year after fighting a life threatening illness

‘One day, I challenged one of those coaches by asking, ‘Why would you say something like that?’ He told me my size would count against me in professional rugby.

‘It really hurt to hear that, but then I managed to turn it into a positive. When people tell me I can’t do something it makes me try even harder.

‘It’s happened many times over the course of my career, and on every occasion I’ve just reminded myself that I’ve been in the situation before. I’m used to dealing with people doubting my ability.’

Mbongeni ultimately progressed on the field in a career that has seen him play for the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks at club level, as well as starring for South Africa.

He won the first of his 67 caps for the national team back in 2016, with the Springboks noting him to be a powerfully built hooker who is well-known for his hard-working nature.

Mbongeni overcame a life-threatening illness in February 2018, after suffering from an infected appendix, which led to him passing out outside the hospital when on route to be treated.

After undergoing keyhole surgery to remove his appendix, it was later revealed he was suffering from intra-abdominal sepsis after some of his appendix fluids had leaked into his intestines. 

‘They had to cut through my abdomen and my muscles, and just make sure everything was clean on the inside, in my intestines,’ he later reflected.

‘It was a positive sign that I could actually walk out of the hospital,’ he says ‘But being at home, I was just thinking, ‘Right, now the journey starts. Now you’re going to show how tough you are and how strong your faith is.’ 

‘I think I lost about 10kg in the space of two weeks. Coming back, doing my rehab, slowly but surely, and having my wife backing me all the way, making it through that was a miracle.’

Mbonambi was part of South Africa’s 2019 World Cup winning squad, but was taken off after 20 minutes of the final after suffering a head injury against England

Mbonambi was named as man of the match in South Africa’s quarter-final win over France

The hooker will play a key role in leading South Africa’s lineout against New Zealand

Mbongeni returned to South Africa’s side in June 2018, just four months after the surgery. He was then part of the Springboks side to lift the World Cup in 2019, despite being ‘upset’ to having been forced off 20 minutes into the final against England after a head injury.  

The 32-year-old, who is married Anastacia and has a four-year-old daughter Esa, has continued to be a crucial part of South Africa’s national team since. He has taken over as captain when the Springboks skipper Siya Kolisi has been replaced in matches during the World Cup.

The Springboks showed their faith when opting against calling up a specialist hooker as a replacement when Malcolm Marx suffered an injury earlier in the World Cup.

Mbongeni was named man of the match in South Africa’s stunning 29-28 win over hosts France in the quarter-final.

The hooker has now been the centre of a storm following the semi-final, but will be relied on again South Africa when he leads their line-out against the All Blacks at the Stade de France. 

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