Rugby ruckus: ‘People are scared’

Former Springbok wing Ashwin Willemse, pictured here during a 2003 Rugby World Cup match against Uruguay, walked off the SuperSport set after feeling patronised. (Andrew Budd/Action Images)

Former Springbok wing Ashwin Willemse, pictured here during a 2003 Rugby World Cup match against Uruguay, walked off the SuperSport set after feeling patronised. (Andrew Budd/Action Images)

It’s been almost a week since Ashwin Willemse left dropped jaws scattered on the floor by walking off the SuperSport set. Yet we still don’t know exactly what Naas Botha and Nick Mallett said to irk him so. Or much of anything beyond the viral video.

It’s likely we’ll never know.
The broadcaster has done an efficient job of preventing a mudslinging battle in the media. At the time of writing, the smart money would be on all three returning to work with little said about this again.

For many who have spent a lifetime in rugby, knowing the prelude to the events in studio last Saturday is not a prerequisite for the eerie feeling of familiarity they felt as Willemse calmly put down his clipboard.

“My take with regard to the clip is that Ashwin got fed up,” says former Bulls player Tim Dlulane.

Dlulane acknowledges that he’s been expecting calls from the media in light of the incident. Last year, he was extremely vocal on what he felt was a deliberate attempt by the Blue Bulls to stifle transformation in the sport. He was axed as senior team manager in a retrenchment process that saw five employees let go, four of whom were black.

“Racism in rugby comes in different shapes and different colours but then it’s always a joke,” he says. “People get tired of jokes … We know racism has been there. It’s hidden because you can’t pinpoint it.  Racism in any environment, they’ll say: ‘Well, bring me evidence.’ But as an individual you’ll know exactly how you feel, how you were treated as though you don’t belong.”

The former loose forward has given much of his life to the sport. Dlulane played for the Bulls before a neck injury forced him into an early retirement in 2006. A year later, he signed on as the Bulls’ junior high-performance team manager and worked his way up to the senior position he held before being retrenched. He made one Test appearance for the Springboks.

Dlulane is now making successful strides in the property business, a field he says was recommended to him by Willemse, a friend and one-time roommate.

Another former player, Eddie Andrews, agrees that it was unlikely that only one or two sharp words prompted Willemse to take a stand. “I support the view that something must have happened, and not just on that day. I think there must have been a series of incidents that led up to that moment.”

Andrews, now a Democratic Alliance councillor, made 23 appearances for the Springboks and a combined 90 for Western Province and the Stormers. The most concerning aspect of this situation for him has been how SuperSport has seemingly attempted to nudge suggestions of racism out of the national frame.

SuperSport chief executive Gideon Khobane told media gathered at their Randburg offices that the studio walkout was not racially motivated. Along with his MultiChoice counterpart Calvo Mawela, the two painted a picture of civil discussions taking place between the three men.

“I’ve listened to the chief executive’s comments and he wasn’t specific; he was very broad. That for me was very concerning,” says Andrews.

“I’m keen to know why they would pronounce on the racism aspect so soon and yet say there are a series of engagements planned with the presenters? I’m not sure I’m satisfied with that response because I think it was handled poorly.”

What kind of line should we expect SuperSport to take here? Perhaps more importantly, is it right to demand that Willemse’s fellow media analysts make a stand with him?

Errol Tobias, the first black Springbok, this week expressed his shock about the walkout. Tobias told Radio 702’s Joanne Joseph that he believed at one point he had become SuperSport’s most popular analyst. The achievement did not sit well with his white colleagues, Tobias said, and he credited it as the reason why his contract was not renewed. But since then, he said, the people responsible for his exit were no longer in charge at the channel and he believed it had turned around. 

Andrews admits that it would be difficult for any current employee to speak out should there be any remnants of this toxic culture: “A strongly principled person would [speak out]. However, how do you ask that person to compromise their livelihood? There are things that could limit a player from commenting for whatever reason; they may be contractually bound. If it’s something that really bothers you and you feel that you’re being oppressed, then speak out. It’s not just about you as an individual, but we are trying to contribute towards this constitutional democracy that we find ourselves in.”

Dlulane, meanwhile, maintains that not being involved in rugby at present has given him the freedom to speak out on such matters, a freedom that he would be remiss not to use.

“When the guys are still employed in rugby … they don’t want to talk against their white counterparts because they will be judged and lose their job,” he argues. “Remember, it’s your bread and butter … I can’t speak out against SuperSport when I’m employed by SuperSport. If I’m going to speak about something, I must have proof.”

It’s anybody’s guess whether “proof” has emerged from these secretive meetings in Randburg. At the time of publication, the channel could not confirm whether all three panelists would be back on air for Super Rugby this weekend.

Stanley Raubenheimer, last month named as an assistant to coach Peter de Villiers at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union, has spoken out about racism in rugby in the past. Contacted this week, however, he said he would prefer not to comment on the Willemse walkout.

Asked whether he would discuss transformation in broad terms, he said: “In general, I don’t think I’m the right guy to talk to. I don’t want to talk about transformation; I don’t want to get involved in this debate any more. I’ve had my fair share of fighting. I’m past that stage in my life.”

READ MORE: Transformation report — Rugby still lagging behind

Luke Feltham

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