ASHWIN WILLEMSE SAGA
Winds of change have yet to shake off the dead leaves of rugby racism
Former Springbok’s walkout from live television broadcast was not the act of a person with a victim mentality
The first version of Ashwin Willemse’s 2015 autobiography, Rugby Changed My World, opened with extensive references to growing up on the wrong side of apartheid. Then he instructed the writing team to remove it: the facts of his life story needed to stay, but the tone had to change.
In brief it tells the story of a life started as a poor coloured child in the dusty streets of an agricultural town, born of a single mother and sleeping in a shack in his grandmother’s back yard, a property shared with 10 family members.
But he didn’t regard himself or want to be portrayed as an apartheid victim in search of sympathy; he wanted his story of becoming a most unlikely Springbok told to inspire others.
So when Willemse walked off the set of a live SuperSport television broadcast — in view of thousands of rugby lovers, complaining of being "patronised" by fellow panellists Nick Mallett and Naas Botha — it was not an act performed by someone suffering from a victim mentality.
Rather, it was his counteraction to what he has been subjected to, on and off air, for close to a decade. It was his attempt to save his honour, as he said, as someone who has been labelled a quota person at the height of his career as a professional rugby player and now commentator.
Some well-known South Africans, including author and motivational speaker Zelda la Grange, radio presenter Eusebius McKaiser and media personality Doreen Morris, expressed support for Willemse, with prominent politicians adding their voices too
In his essay titled On National Shame, published in Diary of a Bad Year, JM Coetzee quotes the Greek statesman and orator Demosthenes: "Whereas the slave fears only pain, what the free man fears most is shame."
This shame is what stops others from speaking out publicly about their own Ashwin Willemse experiences, as he did on Saturday when he told his fellow panellists: "I’ve been called a quota [player] for a long time and I’ve worked hard to earn the respect I have now…. I can’t work with people who undermine other people and I’m glad it happened on live TV so that people can see."
"So that people can see" — herein lies the essence of what Willemse did on Saturday. He exposed what happens off air and behind closed doors and about which most others keep quiet.
It set social media alight. In no time, my own #IamAshwinWillemse Facebook post was shared 200 times and elicited more than 500 reactions. In a broader context, media expert Tonya Khoury produced a study for Ashraf Garda’s @MediaShowAfrica, showing that the Willemse story had the potential reach of 3,8-billion overnight, and that more than 380,000 social media users engaged with the story via posting, liking or sharing. Since Monday, the story has competed with others such as the Van Breda murder trial verdict, but it continued to trend locally.
Some well-known South Africans, including author and motivational speaker Zelda la Grange, radio presenter Eusebius McKaiser and media personality Doreen Morris, expressed support for Willemse, with prominent politicians adding their voices too. EFF national chairman Dali Mpofu tweeted, with a black power salute emoji: "My man Ash! Making us proud! ANY game played on top of OUR land belongs to US!"
DA leader Mmusi Maimane opined that what Willemse experienced "is still sadly an experience for too many South Africans". It was important, he said, to build an equal society, "where we confine to history a system of racial superiority and inferiority". Perhaps that landed Maimane in hot water with his party again after the unhappiness over his recent "white privilege" versus "black poverty" comment.
Consider, for example, DA head of policy Gwen Ngwenya’s own tweet on the matter: "Does anyone know what happened with #AshwinWillemse. Getting very frustrated of all the comments either pro or against him but can’t find what he was responding to. Can those who have taken a side inform me please?"
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille agreed with Ngwenya, stating in her own tweet: "My take is that SA is trapped in a solipsistic bubble. It’s pathetic and pitiful to see what we obsess about (eg Willemse/Mallett). I just spent 3 days on cutting-edge international developments, eg green economy and artificial intelligence."
Which is fine, really, Zille spending three days on cutting-edge international developments. It’s just that in SA there is good reason to be "solipsistic", or self-centred, when it comes to the experiences of people on the receiving end of being patronised, marginalised and discriminated against. For them there is nothing green (or renewable) about racism, even if subliminal, and nothing artificial about being subjected to shame.
From the US, Elna and Allan Boesak expressed pride in the swift reaction of those supporting "this hero of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality". They said on Facebook: "With this brave act, not counting the costs for himself, he showed us all what ‘standing for the truth’ means for this generation. What a sterling, stirring example of integrity, honesty, courage and decency in the face of sacralised white capital, unrepentant white superiority, enduring white supremacy, and the political falsehood that was Invictus."
It is telling that SuperSport has seemingly never noticed — or acted decisively against — what viewers were aware of over a long time, illustrated by YouTube videos dating back to 2014, namely the tension that existed between Mallett and Willemse. It came to a verbal blow again in 2016, which I reported online as follows:
"Mallett remarked that the complete panel, consisting also of Botha and former Springbok hooker and now also commentator Hanyani Shimange, predicted that the Boks were heading for a second loss against the visiting Irish. ‘No, Nick, you said it; not "we",’ responded Willemse."
Having always been allowed the space to dominate the prematch build-up, half-time commentary and post-match analysis, Mallett simply continued. Back then, Willemse wouldn’t budge and repeated his viewpoint until the camera moved to him. On Saturday, before the last match of the day, the camera didn’t move to him since, as can be deducted from what transpired after the match, time only allowed Mallett and Botha to speak.
In the post-match analysis, Willemse then invited Botha and Mallett to comment on the Lions’ victory, but they said they had spoken long enough prior to kick-off. It was all Willemse’s now, and disdainfully they laughed to his face, before Mallett continued with his analysis. When the anchor allowed Willemse another chance to speak, the camel’s back broke.
That is how SuperSport — and SA Rugby — was forced to launch an investigation into an explosion on air that would reveal their own inept managing of what they now call a serious matter they have noted with concern.
On the other hand, SA Rugby expressed concern and surprise at what happened. Both entities were adamant that it would be unfair to make assumptions and snap judgments based on the little evidence available. "However," said SA Rugby, "something was clearly amiss and it reflected poorly on rugby."
Which brings one back to the title of Willemse’s autobiography. Rugby may have changed his world and those of other players from similar backgrounds, but evidently the world of rugby has not yet changed.
• Wyngaard is co-author of Rugby Changed my World — The Ashwin Willemse Story.