How (not) to deal with racism

Former Springbok Ashwin Willemse (centre) pictured at the SARU Coaching Indaba held at the Southern Sun Newlands in 2016. Photo: Luigi Bennett/BackpagePix

Photo credit: Backpagepix

In the wake of Madiba’s death, a former British prime minister, in paying tribute to Madiba, was quoted as saying that Madiba had “made racism everywhere not just immoral but stupid; something not only to be disagreed with, but to be despised.” 

In a matter of a week, our country has had to deal with two cases that were high profile because of their racist nature. We have become accustomed to the Vicki Mombergs, Penny Sparrows and the coffin assault pair, amongst others in our country. 

At the same time, we have had to deal with the upsurge in racism between working class communities and the rise of groups such as ‘Gatvol Capetonian’. How we and those in authority respond to these incidents of racism remains critical if we are to build a non-racial society. 

A few weeks ago, the country was shell-shocked as an upset former Springbok player, Ashwin Willemse, walked off set while presenting local rugby with two other commentators. The fellow commentators were two White men, Naas Botha and Nick Mallet. By now most of us know what the exchange between the three entailed. Subsequently, in the light of the walk-off and the outpouring of support and condemnation of Willemse, MultiChoice and SuperSport launched a review into the matter.

The first red flag of racism to MultiChoice and SuperSport was the walk-off. Willemse indicated that the reference to “quota player” was indeed and is one cloaked in racism. Only Black players qualify to be “quota players”. Yet neither MultiChoice nor SuperSport heeded the first flag.

The second red flag of racism raised by Willemse was that he was not going to participate in the review launched by the two companies. Again this should have indicated to SuperSport CEO, Gideon Khobane, and MultiChoice CEO, Calvo Mawela, that Willemse, as the victim in this incident, did not find the review as a safe space for the matter to be resolved. This in itself gives us an indication of the racial institutional culture that exists in these two companies.

It is an institutional culture that places and supports Nick Mallet on a pedestal so high that he has the power, the arrogance and freedom to refer to Willemse’s commentary as “garbage”. In an email/letter written to Scott Steward, an executive producer at SuperSport, Mallet, with the security of his White privilege, suggests that Ashwin, not he, “be moved to the morning show”. Clearly, for Mallet, Willemse is the problem, not him.

He goes on to indicate that he is very happy to work with the likes of Breyton Paulse, Hanyani Shimange or Gcobani Bobo. Needless to say, that after this episode and Advocate Maleka’s report he will be able to add Gideon Khobane and Calvo Mawela to that list. These are the Blacks that acknowledge his experience as an international coach but even more so they know that the majority of rugby viewers will back him.

Ashwin Willemse did not kowtow to the likes of Nick Mallet and therefore, according to Mallet, they “irritate[d] the hell out of each other”. Ashwin Willemse, as a working class Coloured, just didn’t know his place.

Neither SuperSport nor MultiChoice heeded Ashwin Willemse’s warning signs of the institutionalised racial culture at these companies because, after all, it is viewership that matters and there was no way that apartheid players, Mallet and Botha, could be given the boot. The rugby establishment, with their springbok emblem in tact, knows who to support and when to close ranks and it is just impossible that a “nobody” like Willemse could take on rugby princes like Botha and Mallet.

SuperSport and MultiChoice serve as companies whose examples we should not be following in dealing with racism. South Africans would be relieved to know that companies such as and SMC Pneumatics are leaders in dealing decisively and directly with incidents of racism.

Alochna Moodley has not denied that she used the k-word in a private text when travelling on a Kulula flight. Sitting between the Reverend Solumzi Mabuza and Sibusiso Magubane she relayed to the receiver of her text that she had a seat between two k*****s. She also used the same word when referring to the pilot. 

Reverend Mabuza spotted the text, informed the cabin crew and Moodley was forced to disembark. The company she works for in Midrand has since come out to distance themselves from her and placed her on suspension pending a disciplinary hearing. 

Some would argue that the Nick Mallet case of racism is not as clear cut racism as the Moodley case. There is also reason to question why the two different approaches in the two cases was dealt with differently. For e.g. Willemse, promptly and precisely pointed twice that he believed racism was at the heart of the disagreement between him with almost little to no redress and consequences for Mallet. In the case of Moodley, who is a young Black Indian woman, it was much easier for action to be taken against her and for her company to distance themselves from her; albeit noble actions by the company.

These two incidences of racism is questioned and they, as with most White men, are given the benefit of the doubt even though they stand a greater chance of being accused of being racist than Moodley does. The cases reveal that Black people will always be vulnerable to and be treated much more harshly when accused of anything than Whites will be. 

So often in South Africa, Blacks complaining of racism and being victims of racism are told they are making a big deal out of nothing, they should move on and not have an inferiority complex. As seen in the Willemse case, it feels as if black people must always brush off racist acts as misunderstandings and that efforts should rather be geared toward reconciliation. 

Is this how future acts of racism will be dealt with in this country? 

Sisi Ntombela is the Premier of the Free State Provincial Government & Deputy President of the ANC Women’s League and Meokgo Matuba is Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League