Nick, Ashwin doomed to clash

Stephen Nell

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.

- Stephen Nell

Let's chat

  • Sharky

    What really irks me about his whole debacle is how some segments of the population have picked sides purely because of the race of the parties involved. Some, including various government ministers and politicians (Mmusi Maimane included) seem to have concluded that if a black man calls racism it must be so. Others have jumped to Mallet and Botha’s defense despite not knowing the facts.

    Any unbiased observer would say: “Damn! If the racial discrimination that Ashwin has accused Naas and Nick of actually took place then heads must roll. Let’s wait and see what the facts are.” But unfortunately very few have done that. Most are happy to issue judgement before knowing the facts. Why? Probably because many blacks have experienced racism or have an overactive racism radar due to the country’s past. Similarly many whites are sick and tired of race being used as a “get out of jail free” card.

    Now I’m sure many (including myself) have had their views belittled and have (on occasion) been angered when we felt that our contributions were not being valued. And when things like that happen it is only human to look for excuses – it’s because I’m not part of X clique; it’s because I’m a foreigner; it’s because I didn’t’ got to X school or university; it’s because of my religion/gender/race. And it may be due to one of those factors. But sometimes it’s simply because you are wrong or because your contribution was sub par. Or because the person criticising you is just an egotistical arse.

    Now, as much as we may admire Mallet’s rugby prowess it is well know that he has an ego the size of Malema’s beer belly. This means that he backs himself to the biter end and could probably be a bit of a bully when opposed. Maybe that’s what’s happened here. In fact that’s probably what’s happened here. But let’s see. If Naas and Nick truly are closet racists then let the heads roll. But if not…

    In other news, my neighbor and I disagree on who should be the next Bok captain. But luckily he’s white so there’s no danger of that disagreement resulting in me being labelled a racist :)

    • Willem Van niekerk

      I just do not understand Mallet’s ego,/ attitude and what els is hung on a big clock but Willemse beeing only described as a strong personality. Anybody want to say there was no ego/ attitude involved. Just his description of his achievements tells me he needs reassurance every now and then. None of his failings gets mentioned any where ,by him self or by the media. This seems a bit racial in it self.

    • Rant

      Very well put.

      This entire issue has had so many jumping on the band wagon as a soap box to get their opinion out. The facts we have seen shed little light on what actually caused this. Until such time as an official statement from Willemse, Mallet or Botha we will not be in any position to make accusations or back a side.

      My concern is reading on social media how many people have jumped to the conclusion that “there is no smoke without fire” and that both Mallet and Botha “must be racist”. It certainly seems that there are double standards in place in the country with regards to labelling people as “racist”. Some groups can openly and without evidence label people as racist, whereas other groups get chastised for providing video evidence of such behaviour.

      But thankfully I live in a country that doesn’t really make labels on my skin colour…only on my country of birth.

      • Sharky

        LOL!! I live in London and have been getting it in the neck from some colleagues since the Boks loss to Japan. So I have been xenophobically abused for nearly 3 years now. I’m hoping the upcoming England matches will give me my pride back.

        On your racist labels point, I recently found out that all commonly used definitions of “racism” require a “superiority” element. So basically, if the person showing racial prejudice does not believe that their race is superior then they cannot be racist. Hence, so the black nationalists tell me, black people can not be racist because their racial prejudice is based in hatred and not a belief of superiority. Go figure…

  • Lydia

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight, acquired through many years’ experience as a rugby commentator and writer, Stephen Nell. It is very unfortunate that the incident occurred during these very troubled times, on all levels, in our country.

  • Speed

    This is the best written and most balanced article I have read on this matter. Well done for summing it up so brilliantly!

  • hopeful

    Gents the reality is whilst we read this article and it makes pure sense we are not grandstanding or parading for political gain or sensationalism as so many have done.

    What Willemse has done is played the race card and ignited the politically trigger happy brigade into a frenzy….jumping to the defense of supposed racial abuse….if that’s the level of intent then it shows the level of integrity. If he is aggrieved and his findings are factual then take the corrective action, be a professional…

    Nick Mallet is not my favorite but I can say his comments on players of all races are normally factual and well articulated, his commentary and arguments are based on stats and not simply off the cuff expressions….

    I am honestly disappointed by the comments and politicians who have already hung two people based on one persons accusations…..dare I say if a white person is accused of racial abuse by a black peson then it’s as good as gospel it happened….

  • Dean

    If no evidence is found to backup the claims of Ashwin, then it reflects very poorly on his character. It’s extremely unprofessional to be doing that sort of thing in view of the public eye. This whole debacle could have been avoided and sorted out in a proper manner without polarizing the society of South Africa. Ashwin is supposed to be a role model to all South Africans, he should have acted accordingly.

    This new term of “whiteness” conjured up by the sports minister is very concerning. Isn’t that sort of statement the very definition of racism / prejudice?

    Nick Mallet is hard headed and at times arrogant but that doesn’t make him a racist. You can’t start prosecuting people for possessing certain character traits. Some of our politician’s views on these sorts of affairs sounds a lot like communist Russia was.

  • Barry Smith

    I am not sure we will ever hear the full story, because Supersport will be doing their best to pour oil on troubled waters and get the incident out of the public eye – I don’t blame them. It is an international show and it will certainly have tarnished our and their reputation and standing in the international community! To my mind, there were two distinct issues and whilst Politicians and those racially motivated have conveniently chosen to group them, I think there is benefit in looking at them in isolation
    The first and main issue was that Willemse felt his colleagues had been patronising. Well that may or may not have been the case, but it certainly does not justify dragging matters into the public eye. The fact that he chose to go that route, would suggest some sort of agenda! Regardless, it has been extremely damaging for his employers and would be fair grounds for dismissal!
    The second issue related to Mallet & Botha playing their rugby during the Apartheid era and arrived at a natural conclusion that they were therefore racist. A bit of a stretch and then some! Frankly, this is nothing short of hate speech and the damage done to their reputations, would be cause for a damages claim!
    I suggest that Willemse may regret his actions in the fullness of time!

    • Herman Schroder

      Well said Barry and spot on. Unfortunately even if an investigation reveals that Ashwin overreacted it will never see the light of day. SS just could not afford to ping him for his actions. This will be swept under the carpet but if Mallett and Botha take a stand and demand that the truth comes out ( assuming of course that Ashwin has crossed the line ) then they will be fully entitled to sue for defamation of character.

      By the way in a Jeremy Maggs interview with Wyngaard ( Ashwin’s autobiographer ) on Enca he admitted that Ashwin told him that in hindsight he probably should never had done what he did and regrets it. Some food for thought there


  • Shaville Fledermaus

    I’m not so sure this is the best written and most balanced article commenting on the now “infamous unprofessional behaviour” of Ashwin Willemse. I would love to know the writer’s view on a man whose behaviour was once deemed as that of a terrorist and then the saviour of the whole of South Africa. It is no secret that if he’d continued with the “professional” approach, South Africa would certainly have been in a deeper crises it is currently in.

    • Mark Kruger

      Well said and true in RSA. Ashwin Should be fired!

      • Jaime

        Got to agree he was totally unprofessional and should be fired for his comments.
        Live TV is not a place to rant and rave has young children are watching.

  • Anslin

    “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.”

    Supported by the whole of the voting population then.

  • Johan

    “As long as quotas remain part of the law, it will be used as a proverbial stick to beat players of colour with.

    While there most certainly are a host of players of colour who are more than deserving of Bok honours (Rassie’s “45%” should be easy to achieve), the minute you put a figure on how many HAVE to represent, you are courting trouble.

    And I believe this to be much more to do with personal preference than racism – for instance, I personally believe that Kwagga Smith is a FAR superior player to Siya Kolisi.

    I couldn’t give a toss what colour either of them are!!! My personal preference as a fan, is Kwagga Smith, and it aggravates me that he will almost certainly be overlooked for the likes of Kolisi, who I feel is massively overrated.

    On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Elton Jantjies, I believe he is by far the most potent attacking flyhalf in the country, and it aggravates me when ignorant call him a quota player.

    Yet if I dare give even the most innocuous opinion on Kwagga vs Kolisi online, I’m immediately branded a racist, which I as a rugby disciple, find infuriating and quite frankly weak and pathetic.

    At the end of the day, transformation needs to happen from the ground up, which the powers that be have failed spectacularly to implement over the past 25+ years. But equally dumbfounding is how people seriously think that enforcing quotas at professional level is going to achieve any kind of positive results. It is well and truly putting the cart before the horse. But at the end of the day, if you want fans to stop calling players of colour “quotas”, then stop pigeonholing them as quotas in the first place \m/”

    I copied this as said by Skebanga on and I agree, you can’t fight fire with fire.

    You can’t fight racism, with more racism (even if you call it quotas)

    The only way to stop people being called quotas is if there isn’t any quotas, then there can be no prejudices against player in the team of any colour.

    Then if Kolisi is selected instead of Kwagga and the Boks lose/win. You blame the coach, like every other team in the world.

    • Herman Schroder

      You are absolutely spot on here sir, could not have expressed it better. Racism is now a convenient whip to keep the ”whitey” in his place which merely serves to polarize society further. Sure there are out and out racists out there and I do not make excuses for them but as is the wont of our failed politicians grandstanding and accusing, not certain or some whites but all ”whites” in their efforts to convince the plebs that they are being threatened by a minority in this country, that is just plain disingenuous. As you said you can’t fight racism with racism. In other words two wrongs do not make a right and we would have learned nothing from history. A sad indictment of our times. Cheers.

  • Wesley

    And there Supersport reacts to the debacle, with no evidence of racism. And there WP vice-president Gerald Njengele get 4-year suspension for real blatant racism, without much fanfare, twitter explosions or “think pieces” being written. Why? Some would say its because he is black, which I will totally dismiss in my view. I would think people don’t want to root out real racism, would rather latch onto some vague statements and celeb-status egos, defending a national hero / celeb instead of a working class guy like Jessie Claassen. Its about who has this celeb status and people will latch onto anything they do or say. Just as people are quick to label / insult or jumping to defense of perceived “quota” players on national / international level, instead of calling for national transformation and development of grassroots rugby. Its not about the little guys. Its about who has the big name, money, ego etc.

    • Herman Schroder

      Wesley, I’m not sure if you agree that Njengele was racist or not but either way I sincerely hope that his suspension does not include full pay for four years. If it does then WP rugby is up the creek without a paddle. Nearly or actually bankrupt, they simply cannot afford it. Wakefield may even have to reduce his entertainment budget if rumours are correct, lol. Cheers.

  • Dr Hoffman

    “/nick-ashwin-doomed-clash” of course, because Ashwin is a racist.

  • Lesego

    Apartheid wasn’t just a case of “bad politicians”.

    This view point blinkers what could otherwise have been a useful look at the whole thing. Pity

    • Barry Smith

      It’s a sport program, not a political forum and those employed there should recognise that and respect that and the people that watch it!

  • Herman Schroder

    I assume that the situation which led Willemse to react the way he did was not a question of ‘stage fright’ ? According to rumours and an article on News 24 Willemse was pretty unreliable and did not prepare properly for his stints. Now I’m not saying that that is the case but if as was reported that Nick suggested to the producer that Willemse lead the discussion as he was not getting sufficient ‘air time’ then it may explain why Willemse reacted the way he did, especially if he was unprepared. Faced with that situation he then took the action he did which would explain a lot.

    However if it was Nick’s intention to put Willemse ”on the spot” as it were then that would not have been the appropriate thing to do as well, especially on live tv. If however his was an honest intention to give Willemse an opportunity to express himself etc then Willemse’s reaction was probably not the correct one.

    If one watches the NZ panel show ” The Breakdown” then the way those guys climb into each other is really an eye opener and they disagree on many points and let each other have it. But then again it’s not a ‘colour’ issue over there they just agree to disagree in the nicest of ways and move on. Maybe our new democracy is just not mature enough. Cheers.

    • hopeful

      Nice example….the NZ anchors annihilate one another based on their analysis…race is never the issue even when a white or Mauri commentator takes a bite at their opposite race…it’s simply stats, figures and their opinion not a political platform or pity party…

      Like I’ve said and I’ll say it again….if you are a talented rugby player, coach or analyst and you don’t fit into governments plan for Rugby then best you move on…

  • Rant

    What I gather from all the comments throughout all social media, is that racism, the history of it and the state of it is viewed differently among people from various backgrounds. Some play “victim”, some gloss over the reality of the situation and some just don’t want to move on…from all sides!

    The fact that nobody can even agree on this issue highlights the need to both acknowledge the injustices of the past and also accept that corrective measures cannot cause injustice of the present. And this is the tricky part because humans are all different, have different motivations, different backgrounds, different beliefs, etc.

    Simply, to move on, we need to be able to discuss calmly what our concerns are and have the maturity to listen to the concerns of others with compassion.

    Atrocious things occurred during apartheid, and atrocious things are occurring now. Try to push the reservations and discrimination aside and see the truth. We are all, in essence, racist. The minute we divide a group by their ethnicity or anything else, we show ourselves for what we are.

  • Naas.

    Nick Mallett is the only one of the 3 that does not need this job for the money. It would be very sad if any party rubs him up the wrong way and he simply walks away. He is after all the one with the most rugby sense of the three.

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