Over the weekend, former Springbok Ashwin Willemse did something that ignited a deeply divided response. During a post-match analysis, Willemse calmly walked off set – live on air – saying he refused to be patronised.
By Tuesday afternoon, #AshwinWillemse was still at the centre of the country’s news bulletins. A wall collapse in Durban that killed two young girls – aged five and seven – barely even graced the surface of social media’s main discourse.
The conversation isn’t likely to die down any time soon either. SuperSport declared on Monday night that the trio will work together over the weekend.
Let’s be clear, social media is not always an accurate reflection of the world, but when something dominates discussions so feverishly, it’s worth introspection.
The reaction on internet channels, as with most things in this sphere, was immediate, in some cases downright hateful – but there was rarely any middle ground.
It was made worse when, the next day, the Department of Sport issued a statement dripping with cheap politicking and completely lacking the nuance needed to take a critical conversation forward.
The statement offered a pitiful attempt to add context on the so-called quota system, but it all went to pot when the statement read:
“It is clear that Ashwin Willemse was referred as a quota player by his fellow panellists despite his many successes in the field of play.”
The thing is, Willemse never said that his fellow panellists described him as such.
He didn’t even infer it. He just raised the fact that his genuine lived experience was that he felt undermined and patronised. He said that during his playing days he was called a quota player.
He also did not refer to Nick Mallett and Naas Botha as racist. He stated that they played and profited from rugby in the apartheid era – this is a fact. It does not make anyone directly racist and pointing this out is not an attempt at blame – it’s simply an acknowledgement of disparities and the benchmarks used to define things such as “merit selection”.
Those for and against Willemse’s walkout were largely divided along racial lines. Many people of colour – not just in South Africa but around the world – related to the interpreted micro-aggressions that are a daily lived experience for millions.
Thousands of people relayed their own stories of similar experiences in corporate culture and everyday life and made just one simple request: even if you do not understand, please listen.
On the other side, some called for “all the facts” before judgement is made – despite somebody relaying their lived experience as a fact. When anonymous sources emerged, some took these as good enough to be facts.
And so, the undermining rolled on, now with freshly injected conjecture of stereotypes. The best retorts some could muster were to mock Willemse’s accent or to refer lazily to drug abuse.
And therein lies the rub. Racism or discrimination does not have to be obvious. It doesn’t even have to be conscious.
By Monday night, when two TV execs proclaimed that they found “no racism” in their initial discussions with all parties, the “we told you so” brigade rejoiced.
But just because nothing was found in conversations does not mean the underlying nuances of race, class, accents and yes, egos, weren’t present.
Indeed, Clinton Van der Berg, Communications Manager at Supersport, told 702 on Tuesday:
“That isn’t to say that issues of race and culture weren’t discussed, we did grapple with issues of different perception, culture, background – as many South Africans do. One thing that Nick said yesterday that stood out was, ‘I can’t claim that I understand Ashwin’s world because I’ve never walked in his shoes.’”
Patronising and prejudice present themselves in many ways – and are rarely interrogated by those who grew up believing they were superior because of the indoctrination of propaganda.
There isn’t always obvious proof. Sometimes we just have to stop, sit down, listen and try to understand why certain subtle behaviours might be perceived a certain way.
South Africa as a whole – and sport as an isolated topic – would benefit greatly from a public and robust debate on the lived experiences of athletes of colour. From those who were excluded during apartheid, to those who still battle against its legacy and those who have overcome it.
It would be hugely progressive to acknowledge the athletes of colour who excelled and achieved during the apartheid years, despite being excluded through legislation.
The construction of oppressive systems, designed to deliberately exclude people of a certain demographic, over the course of hundreds of years, isn’t going to be undone in two-and-a-half decades.
No, that doesn’t give the government’s failures any grace, but spend a day in the life of a child who has to travel from Khayelitsha or the Cape Flats to go to school and be educated in his or her second language, and inherent bias will start falling away.
Understand that, for many, the barometer of intelligence is still how well somebody speaks or enunciates English, despite South Africa having over 10 official languages.
An honest conversation where white athletes who were involved in sport during apartheid acknowledge these benefits and talk about it would be a watershed moment for the country. Hell, an apology or 10 wouldn’t go amiss.
Fans acknowledging that those who represented the country in the apartheid years were, in fact, not always selected on merit – because the majority population was legally not allowed to compete – would be tremendous.
A deep interrogation of the lived experiences of athletes of colour in this country – at all levels – instead of an annual report that tells us how many boxes have been ticked would bring about tangible change.
But if the reaction to the weekend’s events is anything to go by, these conversations are unlikely to happen.
Because we are incapable of listening to each other, even on silent social media.
And at the risk of mollycoddling whiteness, it does apply to considering how the melanin-deficient among us feel when so much centres on identity politics.
Because even the wokest whites sometimes have to interrogate whether our response is legitimate or merely a manifestation of indoctrination, even if we’ve had this tirelessly explained to us countless of times. DM
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