It’s All About the Optics at SuperSport – and Advocate Maleka Agrees

At the end, what more could we have expected from SuperSport in the Ashwin Willemse moment – more correctly now called a saga?

It’s really just all about the optics – the visual and the political.

My gut instinct was right. Supersport erred hopelessly in choosing a legal process to resolve claims by Ashwin Willemse that he felt undermined and patronised by fellow on-air rugby analysts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett.

Supersport’s initial “internal” stab at the issue concluded that there was no animosity, no racism.

Next, they chose to bring in a lawyer, in the form of Advocate Vincent Maleka SC, to investigate the claim by Willemse. In Maleka’s own words, he would review the “cause(s) of the statement and the walkaway” by Willemse.

The best we could hope for from Maleka was that he would apply his legal training, go vigorously after the facts, bring a well-reasoned assessment, based on age-old evidentiary principles, to decide what attitudes (my word) were at play in the studio in the interaction between Botha, Mallett and Willemse which could have caused the statement and walkaway.

We accepted Maleka was no sociologist or psychologist, and could offer us little by way of opening up a discussion about race and non-race, about post-democracy power dynamics in everyday encounters between individuals in the street, school, church, workplace, rugby team, even in the studio during a live television broadcast of a rugby game.

Even as a lawyer trained to run a legal process, he was hamstrung. He had no clear definition of the crime he was looking for – a murder, a homicide, an assault – and no sense of the evidence he would need to unearth to prove this most egregious crime – a smoking gun, a bloody knife, a body kicked into a shallow grave.

But, leaving aside the built-in constraints, Maleka failed dismally to bring the very least that we could have expected from him – a sound legal analysis.

Firstly, how could he make a finding despite not having all the evidence? He was not being asked to try an accused which, of necessity, requires a finding to be made of guilty or not-guilty – whether the accused chooses to sit things out in the holding cell below the courtroom or the prosecutor decides to abdicate his responsibility to bring his best prosecutorial game to court.

There was no imperative for a damning or exculpatory report in the SuperSport / Willemse / Mallett / Botha matter, if the presiding officer was unable to hear all the evidence.

Secondly, even on the one-sided evidence assessed by Maleka, he misses clear signs of problems in the “contractual functions” and relations between the three.

He sidesteps Willemse’s complaint to SuperSport that there were no rules of engagement for analysts during the live broadcast. Instead, Maleka details the weight of the technical preparations and the schema for the day going into the broadcast. It was a blaps in the broadcast timeline on the day which seemingly caused the problem, as Willemse did not get his share of airtime at the start of the broadcast and formed his opinion about being patronised when Botha and Mallett suggested he be given more time after the game.

Maleka finds there are no “unresolved grudges, resentment or annoyance” that explains the May 19 incident in the studio. Well, Willemse in his own words points to his resentment towards these apartheid South Africa rugby players lording it over him.

(Inherent in Willemse’s comment is an issue of strict liability, a legal concept lawyers would understand, which would presume that if you willingly played segregated rugby, you associated yourself with racism and, ipso facto, were (are?) racist.)

Furthermore, Mallett admits having at one stage challenged Willemse on air that he spoke “nonsense”. He also wrote to SuperSport asking not to be partnered with “the complex” Willemse as they often contradicted each other and were on opposite sides of the debates. Mallett states: “I think he talks garbage, we irritate the hell out of each other and the working environment is just unpleasant and tense.” Without any attempt at self-reflection, he says that “things will not improve. I have tried hard enough for 5 years”.

By referring to other colleagues as hard-working with rugby opinions worthy of respect, Mallett implies this is not true to Willemse.

All this indicates to Maleka a couple – maybe a trio – of co-workers who had no grudges or other outstanding issues between them?

There is no evidence executives intervened in the tensions inherent in Mallett’s mails to his bosses. Apparently this tension “enriched the commentary” and was good for ratings.

While Maleka notes that Mallett did not have a right to choose whom he wished to work with, he states that SuperSport had failed to respond to his continuous requests.

Mallett admits that he corrected Willemse’s grammar but that this was because of his upbringing under his teacher-father and his own training as an English teacher. But Mallett is not sitting in his home and correcting his children. He is contracted to perform a function as a rugby analyst on a live, national television programme? On what planet would he believe that it would not be offensive to correct a colleague’s grammar in such a context?

Maleka doesn’t tell us what Mallett’s interjection was during Willemse’s exit speech. From the context, it might have been another putdown, something like ‘don’t be ridiculous’.

These evidentiary facts point to this as being a saga which has been a long time in the making.

If we’re generous, we can take away a couple of points from the Maleka report, even if they were unintentional truths: Firstly, SuperSport lied when it said in its initial attempt to smooth over the issue that there was no animosity between the three men.

Secondly, the report disses claims carried in Media24 that Willemse had a poor work ethic and was tardy, with Maleka stating: “I have established that all the analysts … are highly knowledgeable in the sport of rugby… have played or coached the sport at the highest professional level and have achieved remarkable accolades during their career… they treat their contractual obligations seriously.” He add, there is “no credible information” to support the claim that Willemse was ill-prepared to lead the post-match discussion because he was absent from the studio.

Thirdly, Mallett and Botha apparently have no self-reflective abilities to see how a public allegation that a colleague is complex, a put-down about his language abilities, a “normal sort of joking” about his apparent annoyance at losing a slot on the analysis schedule, could colour (pun intended) their working relationship.

Finally, neither SuperSport nor Advocate Maleka, have exhibited any insight whatsoever into the extent to which racist attitudes permeate our society. Perhaps SuperSport – even with high-flying black executives fronting this crisis – cannot bring itself to attribute a racist complexion to two of its leading rugby analysts. The risk is too big of pissing off its white owners and mainly white subscribers.

Maleka? Well, the good advocate is simply hamstrung by his training and the juridical nature of his appointment.

Finally, it IS all about the optics and therein lies the problem. SuperSport has a policy during live sports broadcasts, that the black analyst always handles the electronic touchscreen because, it believes, there is a public perception that black analysts are not technically skilled to operate sophisticated equipment like a touchscreen.

So, SuperSport says, let’s try to debunk that myth by letting a black analyst stand at the touchscreen and have the white guys sitting down.

In other words, let’s just get the broadcast and political optics right.

SuperSport is a television broadcasting company, after all. And white parented and oriented, birthed in Nelson Mandela rainbow-nationism, that instant of euphoric, multiracial bonhomie, it is entitled forever to mask the sins of apartheid monism through positioning a black analyst next to a screen.

And sadly, Maleka follows their lead. He can go no further than recommending that analyst “talent” should operate the touchscreen across the colour-line.

Can there be a more spurious approach to resolving the real problems of racism in our country and especially in our sport broadcasting?

It’s All About the Optics at SuperSport – and Advocate Maleka Agrees
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