/ 20 July 2018

Ashwin’s distress was a missed chance

Attack: Although Ashwin Willemse
Attack: Although Ashwin Willemse


Now that just about every major newspaper and columnist published reports, opinions and speculations about Ashwin Willemse’s racial accusations against SuperSport co-commentators Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, what more remains to be said? In my view: the thing that could have moved us forward as a country.

I have keenly followed the media on this topic, the dedicated struggle to get to the bottom of this issue by “objectively” determining whether racism was present. Strong polarised views were evident from the start and the country held its breath for the outcome: Who was going to be right, as determined by a proper legal process?

Slowly, the narrative began to change against Willemse. When watching the video clip a hundred times did not lead to satisfactory conclusions of overt racism, the possibility of microaggression was carelessly tossed aside.

READ MORE: Willemse on SuperSport walk-out

The likelihood of a technical fault then began to emerge, the very real possibility that Willemse acted in an unprofessional and childish manner on set started to take hold and, finally, phew, the conclusion was reached that Willemse cried wolf.

The independent review found no evidence of “naked racism” in the conduct of Mallett and Botha. Furthermore, in the wake of this saga, discourses were inspired on the potential harm of “illegitimate claims of racial discrimination” and better ways to objectively call out racist behaviour (for example, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s 3D article “What is racism?” in the Daily Maverick on June  25).

Although I too clearly see the harm that could come from incorrectly labelling a person or behaviour racist, I can’t help believing that as a collective we have missed the point in dealing with this issue. Moreover, as people who have benefited from the apartheid era in terms of the position and power they currently hold, couldn’t Mallett and Botha have found a way to turn this incident into an important example of reaching out and understanding through dialogue? In sensitive racial situations, where the scales have been tipped in favour of white people for many generations, it certainly isn’t helpful or reconciliatory to jump to defensive strategies as a first action.

In my view, most white people are recovering racists to some degree. If one grew up in a country like South Africa, it cannot be otherwise. I use the term racism here in a specific way, namely that of unconscious bias that affects our behaviour. Put differently, this is our brains’ automatic, conditioned response to anything or anyone perceived as a possible threat, and continues to persist long after we have strengthened our conscious and rational nonprejudiced beliefs. Millennia of natural selection have predisposed our brains to fear those who seem unlike ourselves, and society reinforces it. So unlike ideological racism, such as the repugnant instances that typically make the news headlines, conditioned racism operates a bit more under the radar and lies much deeper. This kind of racism is thus much more prevalent, and potentially more harmful, precisely because it is harder to pin down.

One feature of these unconscious biases in our neural makeup is that they start to colour the way in which we perceive and respond to things in the world — ever so slightly casting a positive light on everything I/we do but a negative light on everything “they” do. An example is the confirmation bias: the tendency to search for and uncritically accept information that confirms our own views and to doubt or disregard anything to the contrary. One can easily see how this process can set people apart, polarising their views of the very same thing.

Back to Willemse. In line with the independent review, I doubt that there was anything resembling explicit racism present in those few minutes before Willemse walked off set. But that does not mean the situation was not affected by our racial context. Imagine being at the receiving end of hidden forms of racism your whole life. Small attacks on your identity. Micro-insults. Micro-invalidations. Little patronising or condescending remarks that undermine one’s ability or experience. Imagine what these things mean for the individual, who is going crazy trying to decide whether these hidden attacks are real or not. And imagine what it might take for a talented black athlete to assimilate into a predominantly white rugby culture.

I would wager that these hidden attacks accumulate and build up in ways that might be hard for a white person to understand. I would venture further to argue that the “last straw that broke the camel’s back” is precisely that, a straw. We each have a tipping point.

Given my analysis of the situation, I by no means want to imply that it was exclusively Mallett and Botha who broke the camel’s proverbial back. As I have tried to suggest, it might be cumulative experiences of small insults in the rugby world, not least stemming from being labelled a quota player. Rather, I want to suggest that there is enough evidence (from science) and enough racial history in South Africa to give Willemse the benefit of the doubt. By suggesting that someone daring to speak up in such a situation is “overly sensitive”, “ridiculous” or “seeing things” is to pathologise the personal experiences of black people.

One columnist pointed out that being called a racist in South Africa is potentially just as scarring as being called a rapist (News24, May  25). I therefore also don’t suggest that Willemse’s white colleagues simply take the fall for this incident or turn the other cheek.

But wouldn’t it have been exemplary if, instead of arrogantly exciting the situation until they were vindicated, Mallett and Botha had seen this as an important, albeit difficult, opportunity to discuss underlying racial tensions with their black colleague? To understand what they might do differently, including in their working relationship, in future?

READ MORE: No racism in Willemse walk-out, says SuperSport

Was it perhaps because Willemse saw none of this happening — that there was no deeper engagement with his experience as a black person — that he decided not to participate and present his side during the independent inquiry?

As South Africans we have a long way to go to understand each other. But no level of harmony will ever be obtained by sidestepping the difficult, messy conversations.

And so long as white people are more concerned with being called out on racist behaviour than with our obligation to change our internal thought processes, as well as systemic forms of unfairness that remain aligned against black South Africans, things simply won’t improve.

Dr Melike Fourie is a senior researcher leading the neuroscientific investigation of empathy in the Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit at Stellenbosch University