The “Racist” Ashwin Willemse SuperSport Incident: A Brief Analysis & Response

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An unfortunate scene took place on South Africa’s premium sporting broadcast television station, SuperSport. It was the usual panel discussion post the Lions/Brumbies Super Rugby match when former Springbok player and panelist, Ashwin Willemse, walked out of studio fuming on live television. Here is a short YouTube clip of what happened:

It is clear from the limited footage that we have that something was said behind the scenes that involved him and the other panelists Nick Mallet and Naas Botha. Obviously this upset him. Willemse spoke of being labelled a “quota player” and refused to be “patronized by two individuals who played in an apartheid/segregated era.” This was an obvious jibe at Mallet and Botha whom both played their rugby during apartheid prior to the nation’s advent of democracy. In the footage we can hear Willemse saying that

“I’m not going to be patronized by two individuals who played in apartheid – a segregated era – and come and want to undermine… So, I think for me, I’ve had my fair share. I can’t work with people that undermine other people. And you can sit and you can laugh about it (“I’m not laughing about it”, interjects Mallett), but you know exactly what happened. And it’s fine, it’s fine. I don’t mind being ridiculous. I’m glad it happens on air so that people can see, because you two sit here – no, it’s fine.” [Willemse walks off stage]

This took social media by storm given the obvious racial dynamics, namely, a disagreement between a coloured individual and two white panelists. On social media numerous whites came to Mallet and Botha’s support while many blacks and coloureds sided with Willemse. A number of the latter lauded Willemse for being an inspiration because of him so bravely challenging “white privilege” and “arrogance” on live television. Sadly, viewers are siding with an individual merely based on the colour of his skin.

Many non-white voices, at this premature stage post the confrontation, are accusing Mallet and Botha of racism. This is what bothers me as whenever there is a disagreement/conflict between a white individual and a non-white individual it is immediately assumed [by many non-whites] that it is the white individual who is at fault prior to learning all of the facts of what actually happened. As a white individual myself this offends me. It’s racist, partial, prejudiced, unfair, and should not be done to any individual of any race. Sadly, in her sweeping attempt to come to the rescue and unify South Africans once again, the Minister of Sport and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa, had the following to say,

“This behavior of entitlement by some white South Africans who continue to think that their whiteness represent better must come to an end, if it was not for a barbaric nonsensical apartheid system that privileged them we could not have implemented quota system to normalize an otherwise abnormal system. Willemse is not just a former springbok player but in 2003 he was named SA Rugby Player of the Year, young player of the year and the player’s player of the year. Players like Willemse, Habana, Kolisi continue to make us proud as a nation and affirm that they are not token players or quota players”

“It is clear that Ashwin Willemse was referred as a quota player by his fellow panelists despite his many successes in the field of play, I call upon SuperSport to suspend the two panelists while they are busy with full investigation… The continued appearance of Mallet and Botha will be seen as an endorsement of their alleged racist behavior”

One wonders where he or she can begin engaging the issues within Xasa’s words because there are so many. But before we do that let me make a few procedural comments. First, apartheid [given that the minster and Willemse note it] was an atrocious system, a grievous evil, and, sadly, its legacy continues to live on in the lives of millions of South Africans today. I find it horrendous that some whites refer to it as “the good old days” or downplay the moral evil that such a system of systematic and institutionalized racism is. I find myself a strong believer in equality and I do not see any one race as ontologically superior to another. Sadly, we live in a society in which there are segments within the black, coloured and white communities that disagree with this. I am not one of them.

Second, from what I have seen, Willemse is an awesome person, a great panelist, and was an even greater rugby player. I was still very young when he was playing, and I can vividly remember him scoring the only try for the Springboks in a 2003 game that we were routed by the All Blacks (we lost that one 52-16). Third, in some agreement with Xasa, I believe that a number of white people live with a superior view of themselves based on their race, and that this can be both discerned and experienced by others in places of work. I do not deny this. Fourth, independent of my own view of quotas in sports, South Africa has many talented non-white rugby players such as the ones the minster mentions [and many others]. Neither do I deny that. Fifth, and finally, I believe that all racists are to be exposed and held accountable for their racism irrespective of their race. If there is a case of racism, or alleged racism, then bring the evidence forward and let us analyze it as objectively as possible. Let’s then come to a rational conclusion and seek a plan going forward in terms of what should be done. Simple.

I think that these are important disclaimers and qualifiers to make so that readers know where I am coming from. That aside, let us look at the problems in Xasa’s, and others’, response to the event.

First, Xasa, along with many other South Africans, is drawing hasty conclusions of the events that happened behind the scenes that are simply not possible on the available data that we currently have. We simply cannot, from the footage, determine that this is a crime based on white “entitlement” or that any of the white panelists referred to Willemse as a “quota player.” Neither does Willemse say that he was referred to as one. I am not saying that he wasn’t, rather I am saying that it is not clear from what we know at this point that this is the case. Why is it that some people want to see certain things in the footage that are simply not there?

Second, the partiality and prejudice on behalf of Xasa is truly concerning given her role as a leader. In her own words she calls “upon SuperSport to suspend the two panelists while they are busy with full investigation.” I have tried to but I cannot rationalize this logic. Watch she is essentially saying is that SuperSport must suspend (from their jobs and livelihoods) two panelists who, at this moment, are accused of crime but have not yet been shown guilty of committing it… Translation: the sport’s minister wants Mallet and Botha to be guilty irrespective of whether they really are guilty. Why? I suspect it has something to do with their race. Why is it that some only want certain individuals to be deemed guilty before an investigation into the alleged events has even been completed?

Third, one wonders what would have been said by Xasa, and others, if it we inverted the situation, and if it was black and coloured panelist’s who had said something that offended a white panelist? If we grant that it in fact, for the sake of argument, was a racist remark to a white panelist would Xasa too come out a condemn the actions and ask SuperSport to take action? Of course not. Why? I suspect it would have something to do with race.

Fourth, although I hope Willemse and the others affected [Mallet and Botha too] find comfort we really do need better ways in dealing with disputes and grievances at work. We also need far more wisdom. In my view it is unhelpful to simply storm out upset from a place of work, as Willemse did. It is even worse when this is done on live television in front of a couple hundred thousand viewers. Rather, there are appropriate channels and avenues that can be pursued should one feel that they have been victimized, bullied, or offended.

Fifth, and finally, unlike Xasa and many others who have already hand out prejudiced guilty verdicts, I really want SuperSport to determine what happened and what roles each individual had to play in this event. I think that this could bring some closure to both the individuals involved and the thousands [soon to be millions] of confused and polarized viewers. An unfortunate event such as this, should it be handled fairly, could well allow further space for a helpful and needed dialogue across racial groups and communities in South Africa.

As of now SuperSport has confirmed that they are looking into the problem and considers it a serious matter. And so it is.

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2 responses to “The “Racist” Ashwin Willemse SuperSport Incident: A Brief Analysis & Response

  1. I am always amazed how people that has never been at the receiving end of racism feel that they can comment with authority on what effect it has had on the victims, and willcontinue to have on future generations.

    You don’t know and never will.

    • I don’t pretend to know, Andre. I am sensitive to the issues of racism and victims of racism. However, like other human beings, I also have views.

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