Ashwin’s moment our story

Ashwin Willemse. File picture
Ashwin Willemse. File picture
Image: Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Raath

On Saturday evening rugby legend Ashwin Willemse walked out of the SuperSport studio mid-broadcast, following a clash with fellow commentators Nick Mallett and Naas Botha.

Loyal viewers of the channel say the tension between Willemse and Mallett, in particular, had been bubbling under for a while and that it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over.

The incident stunned the nation and prompted yet another heated debate over our race dynamics.

On one hand, Willemse came in for some harsh criticism from those who said his behaviour was unprofessional and childish, and that it stemmed from his own insecurities.

Some went further to claim that although Willemse may have been excellent on the field of play, he sucked as a commentator, much to the annoyance of his colleagues.

The more intellectually challenged lot opted to discredit his very legitimacy by highlighting his days as a young gangster and drug peddler – a past from which he rose to become one of the most celebrated sportsmen in this country.

Still, for many people, the majority of them black, Willemse’s walkout was the ultimate stand against subtle white supremacist attitudes which are endemic in corporate South Africa.

Calm and measured during the incident, Willemse said he felt patronised.

He said he had been called a quota player for many years and that he refused to be undermined by people who had played in the apartheid era.

Let’s agree that we do not yet know everything that happened that evening.

Following lengthy talks between all parties on Monday, SuperSport management said it was still trying to figure out the real cause of the tension.

It was sure of one thing, though, that there was most certainly no racism involved, it said.

If we accept this conclusion, by implication we must then accept that in a moment of deep frustration, Willemse chose to walk out of a live broadcast, actively creating a false impression that he was being patronised and undermined because of the colour of his skin.

If that is the case, then surely we should expect that at the end of its investigation SuperSport would take some action against Willemse for publicly framing an otherwise normal disagreement between colleagues in a way that would racially polarise the broadcast team and the country as a whole.

But SuperSport is unlikely to, because to do that it would need to disprove Willemse’s lived experience which was crystallised in his words on air.

Here’s the thing.

We need not pore over every detail of what happened prior to his walkout to understand and even relate to how Willemse was confronted with what he knew to be micro-aggression.

Principles of social justice and fairness place weight on the distress caused to the offended rather than the claimed ignorance of the offender.

Therefore, it is Willemse’s lived experience that determines the gravity of the offence, not Mallett’s interpretation of his own actions.

We may not know what was said off air, but we do know that Mallett’s and Botha’s actions triggered in Willemse a familiar feeling of being disrespected on the basis of his skin colour.

Willemse’s critics point out that the clash between the men was not necessarily a racial one.

They argue that it is possible for people of different races to disagree without race being the basis of their dispute.

Indeed this is correct.

However, equally true is that too often this argument also serves as a convenient narrative for those who would rather we not call out discrimination when they perpetuate it in subtle forms.

It is an argument that seeks to undermine, even dismiss one’s experience of discrimination as nothing more than a sign of one’s own weakness, a concealment of one’s inadequacy or an inability to emotionally process criticism.

This argument goes further to place a demand for one to materially prove discrimination, suggesting that failure to convince the offender of such means there was no discrimination to begin with.

The trouble with this, of course, is that racism manifests itself both in overt and insidious forms, the latter increasingly being the expression of choice when apartheid was abolished.

In many spaces its social system of exclusion was perfected, its resolve strengthened and its speech polished.

Often we are told that our experience of discrimination is simply a misunderstanding of how things work, or worse, a figment of our imagination. But believe me, black people know it when it happens.

Be it at work, in schools, in restaurants, shops, you name it, they are consistently confronted with supremacist attitudes that define the rules of social engagement.

What we witnessed on Saturday was a man who spoke his truth to self-imposed power.