Cry racism

Andrew Donaldson says it is perhaps for the better that Ashwin Willemse is off to the Equality Court


IT is perhaps for the better that Ashwin Willemse is taking the SuperSport matter to the Equality Court; shoehorning the controversy within a racial context will restore moral order and present the readily outraged with a familiar, comforting paradigm. 

More than a month has passed since the former Springbok walked off a live broadcast, accusing his stunned fellow analysts Nick Mallet and Naas Botha of “patronising” him. 

Not having the slightest clue as to what had led to this display, woke South Africa immediately assumed the default position and cried racism. After all, had Willemse not publicly complained of being labelled a quota player and being undermined by colleagues he in turn then labelled apartheid players?

In the days that followed, SuperSport management interviewed all parties concerned. These were positive talks, they said; all three analysts were prepared to work together and they found no suggestion of racism in the incident.

But despite the “good progress initially”, SuperSport failed to resolve the matter and then instructed a senior advocate, Vincent Maleka, to review the incident.

Willemse refused to take part in the inquiry, which cleared Mallett and Botha of racism. His lawyer, Nqobizitha Mlilo, with no evident sense of irony, now labelled Maleka’s review as “fruitless” and one-sided. 

Accordingly, Willemse remains an aggrieved party and he and his lawyer are off to find, uh, a finding of racism.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge there has been some speculation about the wisdom of approaching the Equality Court — especially after turning down the Maleka review and, in effect, really wasting everyone’s time and money in the process.

Of course, Willemse was within his rights to do just that. But what is it that the doughty barristers remind the beak of at such times? “M’Lud, the witness has not taken the court into its confidence and assisted us in getting to the bottom of the matter…”

On a perhaps purely pragmatic principle, Willemse’s absence from the proceedings meant that Maleka’s ruling was entirely appropriate. 

Without Willemse’s version of events to contradict the evidence from SuperSport anchor Motshodisi Mohono and studio producer Mandla Ntsibande — that is, no racism whatsoever — what other finding could Maleka have come up with?

Had Willemse participated it may have been a different kettle of fish calling the pot black altogether. One lived experience of subtle and less than overt racism versus two opposing lived experiences of subtle and less than overt racism. Quite the postmodern moment.

Mallett and Botha would then have been sidelined: two shellshocked rugby pundits of the “European question” — to borrow the terminology of Dali Mpofu, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ official racial gauleiter — looking on in helpless frustration as one party tried to convince the other of the crushing disappointment one feels when one’s role in the team is to sit out the game on the subs bench and one only gets out onto the field at half-time with a tray of the proverbial sliced oranges.

That is how it is in rugby. It is a hard game, and perhaps brutal. As the former England captain Martin Johnson put it once, “We all get cut and we all get stitched up. We get stud marks down our bodies, we break bones and we lose teeth. We play rugby.”

Indeed they do. But for all the hurly-burly, it is a uniquely character-building and ennobling sport, enriching all who kit out and scrum down for the local XV with a deep and abiding sense of fair play. You can imagine then what it must be like to pull on a Bok jersey. 

Unlike football, or even cricket, there’s a bit of honour about the muddied fields. What happens in the rucks and mauls, all the grabbing of balls and tugging at the trousers and biting of ears and what have you, tends to stay there. After the game, everyone shakes hands and jokes about the stitches and concussions over a few beers. Willemse, no doubt, has no doubt experienced and enjoyed such camaraderie but appears to have learnt very little from it.

Elsewhere, Maleka’s report does mention that Willemse leaves the studio from time to time, often when a game is in progress, to have a cigarette outside. This is quite worrying. He should be allowed to smoke in the studio and while he is presenting his analyses of the big games. This would send an important message to the youth.

The report also reveals that it is SuperSport policy that black analysts be the preferred operators of the big touch-screen monitor in the studio because of “its sophistication and in order to undermine the publicly held view that they do not have the technical skill-set or craft to operate sophisticated equipment”.

This is deeply patronising, and Maleka is correct in recommending that Mallett and Botha also get a chance to play with the touch-screen monitor. If not, they too may have grounds to approach the courts.

A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.