SA's reaction to Ashwin Willemse row shows how divided we remain

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

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

Published May 23, 2018


DURBAN - For the good folk of Fremantle, Perth, it must have been an odd sight. In the local park, the Springbok rugby team were sitting on a little hill overlooking a marked-out ‘field’ while a team in smart green shirts were thrashing the living daylights out of bunch of oddballs in a game of touch rugby.

It was the 1998 Tri-Nations tour and Nick Mallett had challenged the travelling media to a game of touch against his management team. It was an ambush from the start given that Mallett’s team comprised either former rugby stars or very fit physios and conditioning staff, and Mallett knew it. 

Most of the media had not touched a rugby ball since brief flirtations with the game at school and as for our physical conditioning well we pretty much looked like “before” pics taken before a body transformation challenge.

We lost 19-1 and Mallett was in his element. It had been compulsory for the Boks to attend the slaughter and they dutifully clapped as the tries mounted and the humiliation of the press deepened.

The coup de grace for Mallett came when he saw me running with the ball and he lined me up as if I was a Northern Transvaal wing and he was in his Western Province No 8 jersey. Instead of a touch on the back he flattened me with a full-on cover tackle.

The crowd roared, Mallett beamed and murmured an expletive in my ear. I didn’t mind, for me it was in the spirit of fun and entertainment, and the team doctor later graciously tended to my roasties.

That is Nick Mallett. He can be larger than life, a grandstander at times, and some have regarded him as a bully of sorts, often intellectually, but I have never found him malicious and got on well with him.

He is smart and he knows it. He is often the dominant figure in a room. That is how he is. I can understand that some people find him overbearing. I recall him and Mark Andrews (who stood back for nobody) almost coming to blows at a Springbok training session in Joburg. They could not stand each other.

Willemse beats the Samoa defence during a 2003 Rugby World Cup match. Photo: Action Images / Jason O'Brien

I also have a memory of Ashwin Willemse that is vivid in my memory. It was Loftus Versfeld, the infamous 16-52 reverse to the All Blacks in 2003. Towards the end of the embarrassment, when most of the Boks were out for the count, Willemse out of nowhere conjured up a gem of a try.

He was all determination as he weaved through defenders and then dived over for a fine try. Not long after that game, captain Corne Krige said that even more disappointing than the result was the fact that he saw in the eyes of many of his (mostly white) teammates that they had given up.

Willemse was not one of them. He stood out in that game when the majority of his teammates were left floundering. There was absolutely nothing “quota” about Willemse that day, and for that matter in any other match he played for the Boks.

Willemse is a strong character. He proved it by turning his life around from the most difficult of starts on the Cape Flats, and he proved it by his efforts on the rugby field.

Cut to the present and the SuperSport studio drama that unfolded so dramatically last Saturday evening. Preliminary investigations by the pay channel have discovered no evidence of racism.

There is still a lot of water to flow under the investigation bridge, and it may yet prove to be a case of covert rather than overt patronisation that occurred. Or it may just boil down to a clash of strong personalities. Whatever the case, far more disturbing has been the reaction of the public to the incident.

The clear polarisation of opinion along racial lines is now more significant to this country than what was said by Willemse. In general, white folk took to WhatsApp to ridicule Willemse, with endless jokes at Willemse’s expense doing the rounds.

For example: “How do you get rid of a SuperSport presenter? With a Mallett.”

Black people reacted, too, with Willemse being championed for taking a stand against (alleged) racism. Former Boks showed their support for him on Twitter.

The Minister of Sport reacted immediately on Sunday when she called for Mallett and Botha to be suspended.

So here we are 25 years into unity and this country is as divided as it ever was. Nothing has changed and, most worryingly, it seems that few intend changing.

The Mercury

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