How significant is the “Ashwin Willemse moment” for Supersport? And for South Africa?
Willemse, on a live Supersport TV broadcast on Saturday evening of the rugby match between the Lions and Brumbies, accused his co-analysts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, of undermining people (and, by implication, himself).
He said that, in his career, he had been labelled a “quota player” and refused to be “patronised by two individuals who played” racially segregated rugby during the apartheid era. Shortly before walking off the studio set, Willemse stated he could not “work with people who undermine other people” and that he was “glad it happened on live TV so that people can see”.
There was nothing obvious in the few minutes immediately preceding Willemse’s exit which could stand as a reason for his comments and action. Most people assumed that something happened off-camera.
And so we waited with great anticipation for Supersports’ response. When it came – through a media briefing by executives Calvo Mawela and Gideon Khobane on Monday afternoon – it was simply underwhelming.
We were told:
- “There was no animosity” among the three men.
- “They were courteous to each other…
- “There is no racism that we picked up…
- “It is people who got into some discussions … but we are still digging deeper…
- “Is there something else that prompted this thing that we are not aware of?
- “We don’t want to force anybody to divulge really what they’re feeling deep inside….”
This last wishy washy point is mind-boggling. They have given the three analysts – strong men who have spent many Saturdays putting their bodies and their lives on the line in split-second, unemotional decisions on the rugby field – time to get over the emotional difficulties of what played out in the studio on Saturday night.
Critical questions which were not addressed include:
- Why did Supersport not immediately appreciate the importance and urgency of addressing this matter?
- Why did we have to wait almost 48 hours for anything approaching a meaningful response from a multi-billion Rand operation which is on air 24/7? Are we to believe that Supersport executives keep “normal” nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday office hours?
- Does Supersport in fact have a crisis plan in place for such an eventuality?
- Did the company have someone with executive authority on standby for an immediate intervention in the event of a crisis, any crisis?
- Does the company conduct regular and contemporaneous reviews of its broadcasts which could have given executives an appreciation that something was at play long before Saturday’s broadcast unravelled to everybody (apparent) surprise? At least one broadcast clip circulating on social media shows Mallett correcting Willemse’s grammar on air in a conscious, if subtle, racism.
- What happened from about 7pm on Saturday night until Monday afternoon’s meeting between the three protagonists?
- Were off-air clips reviewed after Saturday night’s screening – remember camera and audio links often continue much longer than the broadcast footage – and interviews conducted with production staff?
- What process was employed during Monday’s meeting with the three analysts?
- What will be the subsequent process and what are the end-objectives of such a process?
- Will a counsellor be on hand in future to mediate “engagements” – to use Mawela’s favourite word – on or off the air?
Supersport may well rue the impact of the Willemse moment on its stock for a long time to come. Any company in this position surely must come to a quick determination on the issue: Either Willemse’s strident comments in his exit speech have merit or he has made rash, unfounded accusations.
Many people – mostly white South Africans – have said we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and must rather wait to hear exactly what happened.
Some extremely racist vitriol accompanied anti-Willemse sentiments, in line with research elsewhere that black people pointing out another’s racist action will be subject to further racism, rather than having their claims properly examined.
But, the vast majority of black South Africans have chosen not to sit on the fence and had no hesitation in jumping to Willemse’s side, despite not having all the facts.
I guess it’s because blacks have been there – treated as inferior by non-black colleagues who’ve had a smile on their faces as they doubted us, cross-questioned our qualifications, experience and abilities; we’ve received snide digs from those who presume to know better; been subjected to insults that were masked as light-hearted, humorous ribbing; addressed in sarcastic tones or had our language, demeanour, ways of seeing the world corrected.
Black people understood because we’ve had to face the bullying jeers intended to silence us even in a post-apartheid era.
Outside of managing its corporate interests, the Willemse event (or process) offers a significant “teachable moment” for Supersport and, indeed, for our country on how we deal with the real race issues that confront us in studios and all the other arenas and “engagements” of our daily life.
While Willemse’s moment might have referenced his colleagues’ unconscious racism, an appropriate corporate and national response could also have targeted the conscious racist commentary on his speaking out.
It could – if we really wanted it to – evoke a new way of thinking about race and non-race. It could ignite an essential discussion about transformation of rugby broadcasting, if not of the game itself, perhaps of all broadcasting of all games.
It offers the potential of challenging us to deal with the many ways in which racism persists in non-legal and unconscious, but more insidious ways in a post-apartheid society.
But the sports broadcaster’s ham-handed response thus far shows Supersport lacks the ability to provide leadership to the country in dealing appropriately with this moment.
Does anyone have such ability?