What caused Willemse walkout? It doesn't even matter anymore ...

Lloyd Burnard
Lloyd Burnard

Ashwin Willemse walking off set during a live Super Rugby broadcast on Saturday night left jaws hanging all around the country.

It will go down as one of the most dramatic moments in South African television history, thanks largely to the way in which the former Springbok wing and 2007 World Cup winner made his exit. 

Willemse was fuming. There was a clear sense of enough being enough, of being pushed over the edge and getting something off his chest that had been weighing down on him for a while. 

Willemse would no longer be "patronised by two individuals who played in an apartheid/segregated era" and he could no longer "work with people who undermine other people". 

The aftermath, as expected, was heated, but even then few could have predicted just how big this story would become. 

Almost immediately, South Africans picked sides. 

There was a vocal minority labelling Willemse as unprofessional and calling for his head, but there was a passionate majority of black South Africans who saw something in Willemse's actions that they could relate to. 

The support for Willemse was overwhelming. 

He had taken a stand against people of colour being undermined in sport and in business, and he had given those in less powerful positions a voice.  

SuperSport and MultiChoice acted fast, trying desperately to put a plug in the situation. The ball, however, was already rolling and gathering speed with every tweet. 

On Monday, the suits held a meeting with all three men to try and get to the bottom of the issue and find some kind of reconciliation. 

That didn't happen, but when SuperSport CEO Gideon Khobane and his MultiChoice counterpart Calvo Mawela came out after that meeting and denied that race had any part to play in Saturday's events, the game changed. 

Suddenly, those bashing Willemse were given extra ammunition and those supporting him were accused of 'playing the race card'. 

The truth is that, regardless of what anyone says, this incident speaks directly to race relations in South Africa. 

Even if race had nothing to do with Willemse's personality clash with his colleagues - and that is incredibly hard to believe given the dialogue - the conversations that have followed have told their own story. 

It is abundantly clear that thousands, if not millions of black South Africans feel patronised, under-valued and belittled. They feel this way in society, in the work place and in sport. 

And regardless of what happened in the build-up to the Willemse, Mallett, Botha showdown on Saturday, that is far more important. 

This story has forced white South Africans to take a brutal, honest look at themselves and how they, sometimes unknowingly, diminish the identities of people of colour. 

It is hard to accept, but it is one of the uncomfortable truths to have emerged from all of this. 

For far too long, racism has been viewed as calling someone a k****r or insulting someone through verbal attacks. 

The reaction to the Willemse story has illustrated that it goes so much deeper than that. It is an attitude, and it can manifest in the subtlest of ways - a glance, a certain body language, a lack of respect, a lack of understanding and an absence of a willingness to listen. 

Willemse felt that he was not being treated as an equal on that SuperSport set. And whether or not that was down to the colour of his skin, frankly, doesn't matter anymore because South Africans have confirmed that, in their collective experiences, such inequality is down to the colour of their skin. 

Until we know the exact story, we cannot make judgements about Willemse or Mallett. We should not be putting one on a pedestal and crucifying the other. We simply do not know the facts. But what we do know is that South Africans resonated with that feeling of being undervalued. 

That is the real conversation here, and that is what we all need to understand. 

It’s not about Willemse. It's not about Mallett. It's not even about rugby.

Instead, it's about how one action forced an entire country to examine itself in a hugely honest and uncomfortable way, and that will only ever be a good thing. 

Lloyd Burnard is a journalist at Sport24 and the former Sports Editor of The Witness newspaper ...

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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