Why Ashwin Willemse is a rare beacon
SA rugby has a far wider problem and we should stop ignoring that
What struck me most about Ashwin Willemse walking out of the SuperSport television studio in mid-broadcast on Saturday night was his one comment referring to his playing days.
"I’ve played this game for a long time, like all of us here, you know. And as a player I was labelled a quota player for a long time… and I’ve worked hard to earn my own respect in this game," he said.
That stunned me. I couldn’t believe that Willemse was labelled a quota player. He was a heck of a wing, and at his zenith he was one of the most deserving recipients of the Bok jersey.
He had the misfortune of being part of the country’s worst World Cup squad in 2003, but it says something that he was one of only two backline players to survive to the next tournament, which SA won.
In 2003 Willemse was a rare beacon, a lighthouse in arguably the dullest backline to wear the green and gold.
At the time I remember wondering how South African rugby had regressed from imaginative players such as Danie Gerber, Peter Whipp, Carel du Plessis, Johan Heunis, Errol Tobias, Michael du Plessis, Ray Mordt and even Naas Botha to a herd of (white) cart-horses.
I was not the only one impressed by Willemse; he walked away with a few top awards in SA that year.
Willemse a quota player? A player who did not belong in a Bok jersey? Get off the grass.
How many fans remember the outcry when Stefan Terblanche was dropped for Breyton Paulse in the late 1990s, presumably another quota selection? That happened during Nick Mallett’s tenure as Springbok coach, by the way.
In my humble opinion, Paulse was the better player by quite some margin.
So these people who call Willemse and Paulse quota players, do they also believe that when players of colour perform poorly it is because they are players of colour?
It is a fact that rugby has not transformed properly, and a large part of the problem is that this sport seems to be the last bastion of white supremacy.
A few years back I watched an under-15 school’s match between a mostly white team against a totally black team. Even before kick-off, the white parents were accusing the black kids of being age cheats.
Even so, the predominantly white team’s scrum dominated possession, but their backline could not string more than two passes together.
The black team’s backline, on the other hand, had better skills and they scored tries the few times they got the ball.
The parents of the predominantly white team walked away thinking their kids lost because they were cheated, because that was the only way their narrow minds could compute this defeat to players they clearly considered to be genetically inferior.
This type of attitude is bad enough, but then you still get the disgusting overt racism as allegedly committed by a Roodepoort under-21 team against Wanderers, where at least one white born-free used the K-word.
Racism is alive and well in SA and South African rugby, but judging from some comments on Twitter, Willemse was simply being too sensitive.
Then there was Willemse’s next comment, which was personally painful to me.
"So I’m not going to be patronised by two individuals that have played in the apartheid, segregated era and come and want to undermine [other people]." He was referring to his fellow analysts, Nick Mallett and Naas Botha.
Mallett was one of my heroes when growing up. From 1982 to 1985 he played for my club, Villagers, the team I supported above all others. Before then he played for UCT and Oxford.
He should be politically enlightened. If it turns out that Mallett was patronising towards Willemse, that is indefensible. The same is true of Botha.
The Willemse issue cannot be allowed to end with the internal investigation into what happened in the studio.
There is a far wider problem in rugby and we need to stop ignoring that.