Nick Mallett, Naas Botha and Ashwin Willemse in studio during the incident. Photo: Screengrab

Even while Ashwin Willemse was saying how he felt undermined on Saturday night, Nick Mallett still thought it was necessary to interrupt.

“I can’t work with people who undermine other people. And you know, you can sit and you can laugh about it…” said Willemse, before Mallett had had enough and pronounced, “I’m not laughing about it. That’s a ridiculous thing…” and it sounded like Mallett finished that sentence with “that you just said”.

Willemse replied: “That’s fine. I don’t mind being ridiculous. I’m glad it happened on air, so that people can see. You two sit here…” and then presenter Motshidisi Mohono interjects with “Ash”, where after Willemse says: “No, it’s fine” and walks off.

“Well, that’s unfortunate, because the match was going so well, and so was our conversation” was the response from Mohono – which was, to be frank, unfortunate too.

And unfortunately, that is the sense I’ve got since that moment about how SuperSport have handled the whole saga.

They were slow out of the blocks, with just two tweets on Saturday night after the incident, followed by a short statement on Monday morning only before the Monday evening press briefing.

Something unprecedented on South African sports television had just taken place – an analyst in the shape of a celebrated Springbok wing in Willemse had called out “apartheid era” figures Mallett and Botha, and had felt so undermined that, live on air, he needed to walk out because he’d just had enough of the discrimination and the condescending nature of his colleagues and the general rugby fraternity.

No matter what the details of the situation are, can you imagine the guts Willemse had shown to take that massive step?

He did what many other black sports analysts who have been “quietened down”, ridiculed or been made to feel unimportant in the presence of others would love to do, but haven’t – for whatever reason.

It was a huge, seminal moment in the rugby and broader landscape of race relations in this country, as despite Willemse’s relatively calm demeanour under the circumstances, he was actually shouting “Enough!” at the top of his lungs.

So, where was the sense of urgency from SuperSport in dealing with the matter? Where was the swift action?

MultiChoice CEO Calvo Mawela (left) and his SuperSport counterpart Gideon Khobane address the media on Monday night. Photo: Matthews Baloyi/African News Agency/ANA

Just compare it to how Cricket Australia, and in particular CEO James Sutherland, dealt with the whole ball-tampering scandal following the Newlands Test. And he had to fly to Johannesburg from Sydney…

It appeared to be a case of the sport broadcasting giants dragging their feet on the matter, and it wasn’t helped by the “double act” from CEO Gideon Khobane and his MultiChoice counterpart Calvo Mawela, who offered little in terms of answers after an entire day of deliberations with the parties involved on Monday.

And it was made worse by their insistence that there was “no racism” involved in Willemse’s decision to walk off set.

How can that be, when Willemse himself said on air that he would not be undermined by “apartheid-era” rugby stalwarts in Mallett and Botha?

Many voices out there feel that the whole truth has not come out yet, and there is the stench of “swept under the carpet” lingering in the air.

Let’s see how the investigation pans out.

But for Khobane to say “it is still business as usual in a lot of ways for us” was insensitive and regrettable, considering the storm that had been raging on the issue.

The way in which Khobane and Mawela tried to paint a picture of everything being hunky-dory, by saying Willemse and Co shook hands and greeted each other courteously, was damage control at its worst.

In many ways, it was as patronising as Willemse had felt on Saturday night.

The nation needed them – and still need them over the coming days – to be honest and forthright about the issue at hand.

Ashwin Willemse moments before he walked off the live TV discussion following disagreement with fellow presenters Nick Mallett and Naas Botha. Photo: Screengrab

No sugar-coating and no premature pronouncements that everybody was prepared to work with each other. Imagine if all three men are in studio for this weekend’s Super Rugby matches – are they going to act as if everything is just fine?

Many South Africans like to say there should be no politics in sport. That is a utopian view, as there is simply no way that that can be the case.

This is the way it has always been – only white players were allowed to play international sport during apartheid, and even in our hard-won democracy, black players still have to beg for a place at the dining table in many sports, and most certainly in rugby.

Ashwin Willemse’s comments and walkout is a microcosm of the state of South African rugby at present. Black players still have to prove themselves much more than their white teammates to win starting berths in teams, and the same goes for coaches – despite there being several black administrators in office.

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A lot of supporters denounce quotas in rugby, especially the one that says the Springboks need to have 50 percent black representation at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

But that also means there will be 50 percent white representation – so, what about that?

Race is ingrained in our psyche as South Africans, whether we like it or not. It determines the actions of many of us, consciously or unconsciously.

It’s time that we are honest about that and confront it head-on, especially in sport and rugby – just like Ashwin Willemse did on Saturday night.

 

IOL Sport