#AshwinWillemse's actions likely to be felt far beyond the SuperSport studios

Ashwin Willemse, Naas Botha and Nick Mallet. Picture: Facebook

Ashwin Willemse, Naas Botha and Nick Mallet. Picture: Facebook

Published May 22, 2018


South African rugby's own K-word has been thrown around freely, cruelly and arrogantly ever since the advent of political democracy was supposed to have ushered in a dawn of merit selection for all the country's sports teams.

The word is “kwota” (for it is among Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans that it is used most often and most contemptuously). But there are also English-speakers who are happy to use its English version - “quota” - with the same amount of contempt.

Whether said in English or Afrikaans, it has several meanings in rugby, all of which are insulting and racist.

It means an African or coloured player. It means “not good enough”. It means “you're not really wanted here”. It means “you're only in the side because the selectors don't have a choice - they have to select you”. And it means “scapegoat” whenever a team loses.

On Saturday, former Springbok wing and current SuperSport analyst Ashwin Willemse spoke openly about what it means to be seen as a “quota” player - how extra hard he had to work to be recognised as deserving of his place in the national side.

And then, before walking off set, he dropped a bombshell: pointing to fellow analysts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, he reminded viewers that they had played apartheid rugby, and yet they believed that they had the right to undermine and patronise him.

It is something that has never occurred on a South African TV programme before.

What happened off-screen to make Willemse act the way he did has not yet been divulged by SuperSport. But what happened afterwards was telling.

Black viewers unanimously supported Willemse, saying it was about time Botha and Mallett were put in their place. White viewers, by contrast, were openly antagonistic towards him, describing him as a poor analyst, a troublemaker, a lazy person and “someone who can't take a joke”.

Willemse's actions are likely to be felt far beyond the studios of SuperSport. If not, they should be. What he has done - and the response to his altercation with his fellow analysts - has highlighted how little race relations have changed in South Africa.

White South Africans are as much in charge of sport as they are of the economy. This must change. If it does not, things will only get worse.

The way rugby is administered is beyond abnormal. Somehow or other, the SA Rugby Union has managed to get the country to accept a “qualified” merit system for rugby - very much like the “qualified” franchise for black voters that the old Progressive Party used to punt. And the sad thing is that the ANC government has been complicit in selling this system to the public.

The only way black South Africans will play for the national team is via a narrow pipeline provided by “traditional” (and for this read white) rugby-playing schools. What this means is that talent scouts will handpick future black stars and then organise bursaries for them to attend these schools.

This has turned rugby into an elite sport, and a sport that for the foreseeable future will be run by whites. Unity has severely wounded the game in township schools, and even at senior level. No one can dispute this.

The most unfathomable question is: Why is the Springbok still being retained as the symbol of the national side? It is a racist symbol.

It has always been this way - from the first time an all-white rugby side went on tour to the UK in 1906, to the present.

The team was led by Paul Roos, who would later become an MP for the avidly segregationist National Party. Paul Roos Gymnasium, by the way, is one of the “traditional” rugby-playing schools.

Roos’s Springboks were as determined to ensure that even their opponents in the UK adhered to their policy of all-white teams, as Brendan Gallagher of the UK newspaper The Telegraph wrote in 2006: “One hundred years ago a brilliant flyhalf, James Peters, should have been running out with England in front of 40000 spectators at Crystal Palace to play against the first Springboks touring side. Instead, he was left fuming back home in Plymouth, putting in an extra shift as a carpenter at the Devonport naval dockyards to sweat off his anger and humiliation."

In the bowels of the changing rooms, a huge row had broken out. The tourists had belatedly noticed Peters and were seething at the presence of such a “savage” on the pitch. Initially, they refused to play but eventually the South African high commissioner and local dignitaries, who feared a riot if the game was cancelled, persuaded Roos and his team to play, albeit under protest. The enraged South Africans reacted by playing brilliantly and ran out 22-6 winners.

All-white South African teams were regarded as a matter of course by the authorities. Certainly, sports administrators widely supported this policy, even after the first anti-apartheid protests began around the world.

The insistence by South African governments - especially after 1948 - that touring teams from other countries had to be all-white too was happily accepted by gutless visiting teams from the UK, Australia, France and New Zealand

Even Danie Craven, who white South Africans regard as one of the icons of the game, and who many people point out was not a member of the National Party, once said only white South Africans would be allowed to pull on the Springbok jersey.

To put it bluntly, there is only one place in South Africa for a racist symbol: an apartheid museum.

It beggars belief that players who represented 9% of the country - in what were surely the most blatant instances of quota selections - should still be feted as “greats” by certain communities. Even worse is the question of what gives them the right to pass any type of judgment on whether a black player in any team is a “quota” selection or not.

If they are unable to recognise that they were quota players - and there can be no argument about that, since their selections were protected by law - SuperSport should not be employing them.

Willemse's walkout from the studios offers the SA Rugby Union an opportunity to make a courageous decision for the first time in their up-to-now uninspiring history. It's easy. All they have to do is ditch the Springbok and send it to the apartheid museum, along with all the other relics and records of its inglorious past.

Otherwise, they should explain why these should be retained. If they cannot, and if they continue to refuse to take decisive action to work towards a truly democratic country, that decision should then be taken out of their hands.

* Dougie Oakes is Independent Media’s features and op-ed editor.

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