Opinionista Berenice Paulse 25 June 2018

Making (non)sense of the Ashwin Willemse walk-off report

While making for some salacious reading, a report drafted by Advocate Vincent Maleka SC about the Ashwin Willemse SuperSport walk-off is nevertheless all the more insightful for what is lacking than for what it actually contains.

The report commissioned by SuperSport to review the circumstances resulting in the on-air walk-off of former Springbok Ashwin Willemse seems to have served to further polarise public debate rather than bringing the issue to a close.

While making for some salacious reading, the report drafted by Advocate Vincent Maleka SC, is nevertheless all the more insightful for what is lacking than for what it actually contains. I am leaving it up to the reader to decide whether SuperSports’s choice of expertise in law instead of diversity management/ human rights/ social cohesion to conduct the investigation was a sound one. As the reviewer, Maleka requested assistance from an “expert” who is an authority on race and race relations to help assess whether Messrs Naas Botha and Nick Mallett engaged in apparent or subtle forms of racism, or whether it constituted unfair professional conduct towards Willemse.

Enter Professor Adam Habib, a seasoned academic who has written extensively on the issue. Adam Habib’s name lends considerable credibility to the report commissioned by SuperSport. But this detail brings me to the first of many questions: What exactly was Habib’s brief? Was it to consult on what constitutes racism, overt or otherwise, and then leave it up to the reviewer to formulate his own findings, or did he in fact offer an (expert) opinion on whether Willemse’s walk-off was motivated by racism directed at him? Given Habib’s credentials, the answer is crucial.

The report, after a perfunctory overview of the events leading up to Willemse’s walk-off on May 19, 2018, quotes (rather selectively – and may I add out of context) from Professor Jonathan Jansen’s insightful opinion piece on the issue (24 May 2018, TimesLive). The report attempts to capture the prevailing “public mood” at the time, as encapsulated in Jonathan Jansen’s article: “Is your response to Ashwin Willemse scripted by race?”

The article essentially attempts to answer the question: “Why do two groups of people staring at the same event on television ‘see’ two completely different realities?”

It however stops short at Jansen’s analysis of how our experiences and collective history shape our responses – often articulated through “white privilege” and “black pain”. Call it the context and patterns that shape how we appraise the same event, and therefore result in us “seeing” it so very differently. While poignant, the latter part of Jansen’s article is, however, conspicuous in its omission from the SuperSport review report.

For the life of me, I cannot fathom the relevance of the background information of the two pundits (sans Willemse) and anchor, Motshidisi Mohono, to the review. Perhaps more useful (and certainly relevant) would have been to query them on their attitudes towards transformation in sport, quotas, race in general, etc. instead of overviews of their rugby careers, achievements, and employment as rugby pundits – which in the case of Naas Botha is described as particularly “useful”.

Why this approach, versus one that makes more sense given the nature of the review? The former, would certainly have been topics the two pundits would have been more comfortable with – but hardly likely to shed any light on whether blatant or everyday racism was at play in their interactions with Willemse.

Notwithstanding Willemse’s decision not to participate in the review, the report appears to implicitly accept Messrs Botha and Mallett’s version of events – and it is infused with references to “jovial” and “collegial” interactions up to the moment when Willemse makes his comments about being undermined and patronised, prior to calmly walking off the set.

For example, the report recalls an incident where Willemse takes a smoke break and Mallett offers him coffee – which Willemse declines. All still very collegial. It makes much of Mallett’s collegial gesture to offer coffee (which serves as further confirmation that all was well and no harm ever intended), but by the same token, fails to register any possible reservations about Willemse having turned down the offer.

Similarly, it accepts without question the version submitted that it was agreed by all the parties, off-air, that Willemse should be given first opportunity to provide his views during the post-match analysis; hence Naas Botha’s response to throw Ashwin Willemse’s invitation to lead the discussion back at him.

This assertion flies in the face of Willemse’s response and comments about there being no need “to patronise each other”, and instead transferring the invitation to Nick Mallett. In this context, a more likely explanation is that Willemse was either not aware of this arrangement, or that he was not in favour of it – in which case he would in all likelihood have expressed his preference – given the fact that the report makes much about his ability to “stand his ground and defend his viewpoint.”

If it was the latter, it may certainly be interpreted as being condescending, if Willemse himself declined the offer that he be afforded more speaking time to compensate for the previous earlier switch over during the pre-match commentary. Willemse’s on-air reaction to Botha clearly contradicts the version that it was agreed by “all” while off-air. Moreover, the assertion put forward that despite the fact that Ashwin Willemse used the word “patronising” when the offer was touted off-air, Mallett and Botha were convinced his declining the proposal was a “joke”, appears at best disingenuous, and at worse, patronising and undermining.

Put this way: Willemse was offered coffee by Mallett, but declined and this was accepted at face value. However, when offered more speaking time, his refusal was not accepted (despite expressing himself robustly – in so much that he mentioned being patronised) or taken seriously? Clearly something is amiss, since not to be taken seriously in a professional setting or one’s preference being dismissed, as presumably others know what’s best for you, are equally unpleasant – and possibly hints at a subtle kind of racism. I am saying possibly because context is always important. An element of subtle racism not explored in the report is the fact that it often involves a patronising tone and disdainful assumption that a black person cannot accurately voice their own preference, experience or expectations.

An important issue emerging from the report is the interpersonal relationship between Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse. Mallett disclosed that he wrote several emails to the SuperSport management requesting not to be placed with Willemse for live commentary. In one email, he expressed a preference for a number of other black players whom he deemed to be, among others, asking “very good questions”, while another’s knowledge of rugby resulting in “interesting clips for discussion”, unlike Willemse. Mallett is portrayed as the consummate professional and expert, capable of dispensing unsolicited appraisals of the skill and work ethic of his supposed peers.

The question I would have asked at this stage is whether Mallett ever conducted himself in the same manner with pundits of the paler persuasion – did he in fact appropriate himself the power and prestige to comment on their abilities or not? The email continues that Willemse should be moved to another morning slot, as he talks “garbage” – added to the fact that they “irritate the hell out of each other”. Mallett is very explicit in his disregard in that “unlike” the case with Willemse, there are other black players whom he respects for “their hard work and rugby opinions.”

Another thought is what exactly is so threatening about Willemse holding different points of view from that of Mallett, and why would this automatically reduce it to the level of “garbage”? Instead of critically assessing these and other incidents, the report skips over them, and construes the existence of these emails as evidence of Mallett’s discomfort in working with Willemse, and that it was an expression of “his preference to work with other colleagues […].”

Other incidents of discord recorded in the report include Mallett’s modifying Willemse’s use of English (on-air), and Mallett “openly” (on-air?) asserting that Willemse spoke “nonsense”. The “nonsense” incident is reduced to a once-off, and Nick Mallett’s account that he corrected the English of fellow pundits across the colour line, including Naas Botha’s, is accepted at face value for what it claims to be: a mannerism remnant of his educationalist father, as well as his days as a former English teacher. The report does not disclose whether these alleged incidents with other pundits were conducted on-air, as is the case for Willemse. Be that as it may, the habit to correct the language of peers who are not native English speakers (nor former teachers) suggests an enormous ego and a level of arrogance left unchecked for far too long. Let’s just say Nick Mallett does not come across well in the report – albeit it unintentionally.

Before returning to how the report glosses over these incidents, I would like to pose the following question: What do the email incidents reveal about Nick Mallett and his relationship with Ashwin Willemse? That despite the fact that both Mallett and Willemse were supposed “equals” in the studio, Mallett saw himself as having more power: ie the power to decide who he wanted to work with; the power to insist that, despite his own reluctance to work with Willemse, that Willemse be the one to be shifted to another slot; the power to articulate his views about the inadequate calibre of Willemse’s work and his lack of respect thereof, without fear of recrimination; the power to express such in crude language – without any concern for how this might affect Willemse. Subtle racism is often expressed through a white person appropriating the power to evaluate the performance or expertise of black peers – and feeling justified or entitled to do just that, irrespective of whether it is solicited or not.

In the end, the report finds no evidence of overt or intended subtle racism on the side of both Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, nor evidence that their actions were motivated by malicious intent “or desire to hurt Willemse.” I personally view the finding on the lack of malicious intent unpalatable in the context of Nick Mallett’s disregard for Ashwin Willemse’s feelings, which he expressed in the past in his emails, as well as “openly”.

Based on evidence in the report, it creates the impression that more than intending to harm Willemse, Mallett simply did not care. But the report finds no discernible link, nor pattern which suggests otherwise. Moreover, it quotes minutes from a meeting where Willemse supposedly denied racism claims against Mallett and Botha.

Finally, it asserts that Botha and Mallett’s invitation for Willemse to speak did not seek to undermine the latter – and somehow absurdly juxtaposes this with the fact that “as analysts and professionals they expressed strongly held views and defended them, at times”, which is to be expected in professional discourse of this nature.

While the report is greatly concerned with whether subtle racism was intended, the reality is that even if unintended, it causes harm to the person it is directed at. The difficulty with detecting subtle racism, as opposed to overt racism, is that it is ambiguous – expressed through indirect actions, body language and inferences, and labelled as something else; i.e. often a joke or a simple misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the SuperSport review report does not even begin to grapple with its complexity and nuanced manifestations. Given the chronology of events and versions put forward in the report, I expected, at the very least, a finding on unfair professional conduct towards Willemse. DM

Berenice Paulse identifies as a black feminist and writes on social justice.

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