Guest Column

Under the rug, rugby is still harbouring racists

2018-05-22 13:43
Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse (File)

Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse (File)

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Sibusiso Mjikeliso

It isn't even Rugby World Cup year yet and already there have been a few racism storms in rugby.

What's that old famous Naas Botha saying? "The Currie Cup isn't won in May." It's time for an update to that phrase to "Racism doesn't only flare up in World Cup years."

The latest talking point is Ashwin Willemse's firm (and startlingly polite) exit from the set during a live post-match broadcast at the end of the Lions vs Brumbies game on SuperSport on Saturday.

I cannot claim to know the full details of what went down but I do know the seriousness with which Ashwin takes his job. And I am not an expert on Ashwin Willemse, neither can I speak on his behalf, but I can say that his decision to walk off – risking his livelihood in the process – was not taken lightly. It was sickening to see Nick Mallett and Naas Botha giggle as Ashwin was expressing huge offence to something or the other that they said to him prior to that fateful moment.

Not a lot of people know this but I once ghost wrote Ashwin's Sunday Times column during the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. It was the donkey job, really, and was passed down to the most unfortunate soul in the newsroom and that year I drew the short straw. My editor at the time also derived devilish pleasure from seeing minions squirm. It's called schadenfreude.

Anyway, from that experience I gained a lot. I was about to embark on my biggest writing project yet, which was to write the autobiography of former Springbok Thando Manana. In this regard it taught me how to get someone else's voice across and how to write with egoless fingers. But it was also frustrating. I had to wait until Ashwin had finished his SuperSport duties in order for us to brush up on the column in time for the Sunday paper's deadline, after every Saturday night game.

Though I was frustrated to no end at having to wait and wait, Ashwin always applied himself fully to his analysis on screen, never distracted by his next flush gig (which was the Sunday Times column I ghost wrote). He would finish up in studio, find a quiet room to call me back and proceed to go home, which meant that his day would not finish before midnight, at least.

So, anyone who thinks him walking off set was just him being "a little drama queen" (as one daft neo-Nazi said on Twitter) could not be more mistaken.

And I don't even want to delve into the daftness of calling Ashwin a quota player when, in 2003, he swept the boards at the SA Rugby Awards, taking the SA Player of the Year, Players' Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards in one evening. I've not seen anyone emulate that treble. Malcolm Marx came close with the Young Player and Player of the Year double. Jake White once said: "If I had 15 Ashwins in my team, I'd win the World Cup." That tells you everything you need to know about him as a player.

And, though we may not know the full lowdown of what happened on Saturday night, it's Ashwin's reaction that gives clear clues of the racist tones of whatever was uttered by Naas "Baas" Botha and Nick Mallett.

"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 said.

After Monday's meeting between the parties involved, the crisis management answer from Gideon Khobane, the SuperSport CEO, was that "there was no racism involved in the matter" and that "all the people involved were cordial and were willing to work with each other in the future". I have my reservations, but we have no choice but to wait for SuperSport's investigation. Whether that investigation will bring the truth out is up for conjecture.

'Racism pot brewing for a while'

Rugby's racism pot has been boiling for a while this year and the stench could be smelled from afar that something unsavoury like this was going to happen. And there are few things as stereotypical as a racist incident in rugby. It's a tired, old form of hatred expression ... about as tired as the man-made prejudicial mindset itself.

It is hard to surprise black people with racism anymore. From black people getting beaten up at rugby stadiums to getting called the k-word in the bogs and even to the subtle, poisonous kind: getting left out of starting line-ups. We have seen it all.

But came the end of April this year, we were all stunned when brazen racism took place when Wanderers rugby club players were allegedly racially and physically abused by the Roodepoort club players during a club game in Johannesburg. The story goes that the referee, Roodepoort players and their parents were in a devil's pact to inflict as much misery on the non-white Wanderers rugby players, which they apparently achieved by inflicting violent blows toward the opposing boys right after the game. 

We are still waiting for decisive action from the Golden Lions Rugby Union, which is the top administrative body for these two clubs. Expulsion from club rugby and criminal charges getting laid would be the best outcome but don't hold your breath.

Bodies always rise to the surface

Every now and then, the bodies in rugby always rise to the surface. Every so often the pretence stops and the racists run wild. That bus is never late.

I wish the racism stories in rugby ended there but why kill the goose while it's laying rotten eggs? In March, Griquas fined an unnamed player for brandishing the old apartheid flag in the changing room and apparently draping it over a black teammate. You can't make this idiocy up. What was revealing was Griquas' response to the incident. Griquas president Jannie Louw said the offending player meant the obscene gesture as a joke.

To call brandishing of the old South African flag "a joke" is like saying "apartheid was banter" or "slavery was a choice" or "the Holocaust was a misunderstanding". But that's how a lot of white people in rugby think: that apartheid was one big joke, that we should all have a nice giggle about it like Naas and Nick did when Ashwin raised his objections at their behaviour.

This is why rugby needs to take a deep look inward (I'm asking for unicorns and fairytales, I know) and look at the apologetic nature in which it deals with racism, casual and brazen. Unless, of course, as many black people fear, rugby isn't interested in transforming and booting racists into touch. 

If it's the latter that overrides all else, then they have the right tools at their disposal and the perfect media outlet to harbour racists in the game. But they cannot stop strong voices and stern characters such as Ashwin Willemse, who has gained the world's respect for his bold walk-out.

- Mjikeliso is an editor, publisher and communication strategist and author of Being a Black Springbok: The Thando Manana Story. Writer, Editor, Publisher, Communication Strategist.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    ashwin willemse  |  racism  |  rugby
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