Hurt, pain & Ashwin Willemse

Andrew Kenny writes on the furious emotions unleashed by the notorious incident on SuperSport TV

The furious emotions unleashed throughout South Africa by an incident in a TV studio over a discussion about rugby seem to confirm Sayre’s Law, which states, "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake."

We have all seen this law confirmed over and over again. In 1945, when the US Government was deciding whether or not to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, there were a few minutes of calm discussion before they gave orders to kill over 200 thousand people (and probably save over 20 million by ending the war). On the other hand, if you attend the AGM of your local golf club where they are deciding on some obscure club rule, you are likely to see grown up men turning purple with rage and screaming at each other for over an hour.

Perhaps the affair of Ashwin Willemse’s walkout, trivial in itself, did reveal deep and confusing problems in our attitudes towards race. I think so, and I think the resulting uproar was very disturbing. What bothered me most was a sinister vagueness. We were never allowed to get clear evidence or clear rules of correct behaviour.

This is what happened. On Saturday, 19 May 2018, on the SuperSport TV Channel, a chairwoman and three men, all rugby experts were discussing a match. The discussion was proceeding amiably when suddenly one of the experts walked off in a huff saying, "I’ve been in the game for a long time like most of us here. As a player‚ I’ve been called a quota for a long time and I’ve worked very hard to earn the respect I have now. I’m not going to sit here and be patronised by these two individuals (Mallett and Botha) who played their rugby during the apartheid era‚ a segregated era." The other two looked bewildered 

I know nothing about rugby and was useless at it at school. I’ve only been to one rugby test match in my life (Springboks vs British Lions at Newlands in 1962) when I was a schoolboy. I was bored stiff. But knowledgeable people tell me this of the three men in question. Naas Botha was a rugby genius, one of the best players of all time. Nick Mallet was both a Springbok player and an outstanding coach. Ashwin Willemse was a fine Springbok player. Commentators seem to feel that on this occasion Botha and Mallet should be classified as “white” and Willemse as “black” (although the ANC’s Employment Equity Act might classify him as “Coloured”, a term it refuses to define).

I have now watched this little episode (3 min 54 sec) four times and could never pick up a whiff of racism from Mallet or Botha or any mention of Willemse as a quota player. Nonetheless, the Sports and Recreation Minister, Tokozile Xasa, called for the suspension of Botha and Mallett. From all the English speaking main stream media the opinion was unanimous: Botha and Mallet were wrong, Willemse was right and had been the victim of racism. What about the argument, surely a plausible one among others, that Willemse was embarrassed because he hadn’t prepared for the interview as well as he should? This was not allowed to be considered.

The editors writing their censorious leading articles didn’t need facts or evidence; they could just tell that Botha and Mallet were racists. Other commentators said that although there had been no actual racism “per se”, they could penetrate the minds of the white men and see within them “subliminal racism” or “subtle racism” or “coded racism” or “covert racism”. Like the witch-finders from the 17th Century, who could just tell that some unfortunate old lady was in league with the Evil One even if she had done nothing wrong, so the modern racist-finders can just tell that some white person they happen to dislike is a racist without a shred of evidence.

If the racist-finders decide you are the enemy, it is impossible for you to say anything they won’t construe as racist. Let me give an extreme example. Take a famous hate figure of the racist-finders, Helen Zille. Suppose last month Helen Zille had addressed an open air audience of black people in Guguletu. The Sun was shining and the sky was blue. She had begun her talk by smiling and declaring, “What a lovely day!”

Horror from the racist-finders! “Helen Zille’s mask has slipped and she has revealed herself as the true racist she is. She knows that Cape Town is in the grip of drought. Black people will suffer most from water shortages. We need grey skies and rain. If she had been addressing her rich white friends in Bishopscourt, she would have lamented the dry day. But in her patronising, racist way she speaks to blacks about a ‘lovely day’. Of course this is just coded language for a ‘hot day’. She think black people love hot days.”

This is somewhat of an exaggeration but not much.

As bad was the assumption that the black man, Willemse, couldn’t be wrong, and this points to the worst real racism of all, the belief that black men can never be wrong because they can never be morally culpable. It is the most appalling insult and humiliation in the whole field of race relations. Could Willemse himself been the one at fault? Oh, no! He can’t be wrong because he’s black. This is essentially denying Willemse his humanity, since moral culpability is what distinguishes man from other creatures. It is an evil assumption.

Willemse’s remark about being called a “quota player” opens up another avenue of malignant confusion. We are told over and over again that in such and such a sporting league there must be a quota of at least three black player in each team. So quotas are not only good but compulsory. But then if three black players are put into the team, it seems we are not allowed to refer to them as quota players.

The same is true for “affirmative action” (meaning that race must be a consideration for appointments) and “transformation” (meaning that blacks must replace whites). Affirmative action is also compulsory and good but it is a deadly racist slur to refer to anyone as an affirmative action employee. The new Vice Chancellor of UCT, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, declares that she is committed to transformation at UCT but I guess she would be horrified if she was referred to as a “transformation Vice Chancellor” or if black graduates at UCT were called “transformation graduates”.

Finally comes the political phenomena of “hurt” and “pain”. This featured prominently in discussions about Willemse’s walk-out. Until fairly recently, a black person could win any debate against a white by calling him a racist. Now he can win the debate by saying the white doesn’t understand his “hurt” and “pain”. The person with the deepest feelings, rather than the most logical argument, wins the debate. Of course none of us likes to be hurt or offended or feel intimidated or put down but all of these are likely experiences in day to day adult life. If I ever met Willemse face to face I’d feel considerably over-awed, jealous and rather inferior. He is tall, good looking, highly talented, famous and extremely successful; at school I guess he did well with the pretty girls (as good sportsmen usually do). I am shortish, plain, useless at most sports, almost unknown and mainly unsuccessful; at school I never got any pretty girl. But I’d look stupid if I tried to win an argument against him by announcing my “hurt” and “pain” because of my inferiority to him.

We all have to live with and deal with the slings and arrows of daily life as adult men and women. I don’t want anyone to patronise me because of what I perceive are my short-comings, either from nature or circumstances; and I don’t want to patronise anybody else. I want to treat blacks in exactly the same way as I treat whites, and I guess Botha and Mallet feel the same. Willemse accused them of patronising him but that is exactly what they were not doing; they were not making allowances for him because he was black; they were bantering with him as they would banter with each other. Maybe off the air they behaved differently but I can only judge on what I have seen.

Apartheid, wicked and stupid, oppressed and stifled black people, and stopped them from realising their abilities and ambitions. Apartheid has gone and what remains is a legacy of inferior schools, houses and sport facilities. The way to address these problems is improve the facilities for those at disadvantage and to find ways of giving equality opportunities to all. It is not by treating black people differently from white people.

Andrew Kenny is a contracted columnist to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you support what we stand for and would like to see more of our writing in the media, join us here.