Nick Mallett, Ashwin Willemse and Naas Botha during a SuperSport broadcast. Photo: Screengrab

Is the “rainbow nation” finally unravelling? This is a thought that was on my mind all week as I watched the responses to the Ashwin Willemse “no racism” incident which happened last Saturday.

For those who have been doing a Rip van Winkle for the past week, Willemse, a celebrated South African rugby player who does analysis on SuperSport, walked out of the studio after confronting his two fellow analysts - Nick Mallet and Naas Botha, also celebrated South African rugby players - for being patronising. He indicated that, despite his achievements and hard work as a rugby player, he was often seen as a quota player.

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Willemse accused his co-analysts of playing rugby in the apartheid era. Botha and Mallett played for South Africa in the 1980s, while Willemse played in the 2000s.

After the walkout, which happened on live television, SuperSport was quick to respond, saying that its preliminary investigation found there was no racism involved in the incident.

This was the case in the original incident, there was plenty of racism involved in the responses from couch potato commentators - mainly from white South Africans.

Frankly, I was not surprised by the vicious responses from white South Africans - many of them highly personal and defamatory. Because this is what we have come to expect when it comes to dealing with racist incidents, especially involving rugby, which many whites still see as belonging to them, with black players and supporters intruding into an area that should have remained exclusively white - as it was in the days when Mallett and Botha played for South Africa.

The Willemse incident brought back many bad memories for me. I thought of the many times I had been patronised throughout my career, for which I fought hard and of which I am proud. I also remembered an incident a few years ago when I realised how proprietary white South Africans are of rugby.

I was the only black person invited to a function by the CEO of a white company and happened to listen in on one of the conversations involving someone who the CEO had earlier introduced to me as his best friend.

The “best friend” told people listening to him that “they had better leave rugby alone, because it has always belonged to us”.

I considered correcting him at that point and telling him about the proud tradition of rugby in the Western Cape, where I grew up, and the Eastern Cape, where I went to play rugby as a youngster, but I looked around the whites-only audience and realised that I was going to be on a hiding to nothing.

I suppose I should have walked out at that point, if I was not going to say anything, but did not want to spoil the occasion for the chief executive, who was my friend but who I realised afterwards, remained a white South African, despite our friendship.

And this is part of the problem in South Africa. Many of us seek solace in group identity when we are dealing with the uncomfortable reality of race and its after-effects in our society. I have seen over and over how many white people react almost in unison, while many black people do the same, to issues perceived to be grounded in racism.

There is no attempt to see or listen to the other side. This is what happened after the Willemse incident. And despite the protestations of SuperSport, race did play a role in what led to Willemse’s comments and actions.

So, is the “rainbow nation” unravelling? My humble submission is that it is not. Because for the “rainbow nation” to unravel, it had to be united at some point and, I believe, we have never been united. We only pretended to be.

We were so eager to move on from our apartheid past after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s, that we believed our own propaganda.

We believed that we had become the socially cohesive society that we had fought for in the Struggle against apartheid.

But social cohesion does not fall from the sky and does not happen in a few short years. Social cohesion requires continuous hard work.

It requires us to forgo our racial identities and the comfort we get from it. It requires us to listen to others who might look and sound different to us, so that we can understand their lived experiences which ultimately impacts on their world views.

Social cohesion means that we should not wait for a high-profile racial incident to discuss race and racism, because it will always mean we go into our separate corners. We need to engage racism daily, especially when it makes us feel uncomfortable.

We have never been a “rainbow nation” and we will never be unless we work hard at making it a reality. Otherwise, we will remain as divided as we were under apartheid, with the only difference being that racism is now illegal.

And we all know that just because something is illegal, it does not mean that it does not exist.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Twitter: @rylandfisher

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus