Like me, I’m sure South African rugby fans are waiting with bated breath to hear what exactly went down behind the scenes that prompted Ashwin Willemse to walk out of SuperSport’s studios on Saturday night.
Willemse’s reference to fellow analysts Nick Mallett and Naas Botha as players who played in the apartheid era has escalated it into the realm of race politics. South Africans are polarised along racial lines on this issue with people nailing their colours to the mast even before all the facts are known. Politicians have predictably weighed in.
I realised in my very first journalism job – as a part-time radio sports presenter– that the friendly banter between presenters to the audience is often a front.
Not everything that happens behind the scenes between people is moonshine and roses, which is entirely understandable if you think about it. We’re dealing with people with opinions, not pre-programmed robots. People respond with sarcasm, some are sensitive, others are insensitive. It’s all pretty obvious.
Willemse, however, did something that I had never seen before – he took the fight public in a way that has left his employer in an enormous crisis. Unless SuperSport can somehow engineer a conciliatory outcome, the ramifications are enormous and could be damaging to all three individuals.
In a strictly journalistic sense, what Willemse did was unprofessional. If he was seriously offended by something that happened, the obvious question arises why he didn’t simply walk away behind the scenes. And even doing that before completing your media duties won’t go down kindly with employers.
If there is some kind of racial undertone to what prompted Willemse’s extreme action, it will no doubt evoke debate. Some would feel Willemse did the right thing to take a stand so that the dirty laundry can be aired in public, whereas others may feel that’s not the way to go about things.
Without knowing the facts, I believe the issue may well be more nuanced. The first question is whether Mallett, Botha and Willemse are the right mix.
Both Mallett and Willemse come across very strong in their opinions and feel the need to voice it. Mallett is articulate and the Springbok coach many believe should never have been fired. He knows that South Africans appreciate his frank views and is talented at delivering them.
Willemse also has strong views and if you shut him up or out – as has been speculated is what happened – you are bound to get a reaction.
By and large, these guys speak to different audiences – Mallett and Botha to the establishment, and Willemse to those who appreciate the view of an impressive former Springbok wing whose inspiring life story is one of rags to riches. You can only respect Willemse if you know his story and not offering him that is bound to offend him deeply considering where he’s come from and what he has achieved.
Mallett, for any of those who have interacted with him, calls a spade a shovel. You couldn’t post him anywhere as a diplomat, but in 20 years of dealing with him I’m prepared to say he is to his core a generous and decent man.
Naas, by the way, was the first post-unity Springbok captain, so he wasn’t just a player from the apartheid era. Either way, he earned his respect worldwide and remains arguably the best flyhalf South Africa has ever showcased to the world. Neither he nor Mallett can be criticised for playing the game just because South Africa had lousy politicians at the time – as we do now.
In SuperSport’s position I simply wouldn’t put these guys together in a studio. I can see why the broadcaster did because debate by knowledgeable people on a topic is a good thing. But as personalities go, was it ever the right blend?
Truth be told, I just hope we see a happy ending. SuperSport can surely get these guys together and get them to talk through their differences. Yet, Mallett and Botha may be equally offended about how things transpired and impacted on their reputations, so I wouldn’t bet my house on it.
As things stand right now, this is a lose-lose for SuperSport . It’s a PR-disaster unlike they have ever faced.