SuperSport’s rugby pundits’ row reopens racial wounds

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Robson Sharuko

Harare – It’s the game which some claim built the Rainbow Nation when Nelson Mandela rallied millions of blacks to embrace the Springboks in their successful adventure in winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in a script that even inspired a blockbuster Hollywood movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

But, 23 years after the events that shaped the movie ‘Invictus, which starred A-listers like Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, South Africa is reeling from deep divisions sparked by a fallout among three rugby television pundits which some claim was sparked by a race row.

One of them is black and two are white.

The drama, which has sucked in even the South African government, started when Ashwin Willemse, a black rugby pundit on SuperSport, walked off the set live on television last Saturday during the coverage of the Super Rugby match between the Bulls and the Brumbies of Australia.

“I’ve played this game for a long time, like all of us here. And as a player, I was labelled a quota player for a long time and as a player, I’ve earned hard and worked hard to earn my own respect in this game,” said Willemse, who played as a wing for the Springboks.

“And I’m not going to be patronized by two individuals who played under apartheid, a segregated era and want to come and undermine.”

The two were his co-pundits on the show, Naas Botha, and Nick Mallet, who are both white and played rugby, for their country, largely during the years when doors were shut for black people to crack into the national team and the Springboks were largely viewed as the sporting arm of apartheid.

“I think for me, I’ve had my fair share. I can’t work with people that undermine other people,” Willemse said as he stormed off the set.

And the dramatic events, watched by millions around the world, have sparked a chain reaction in a country where racial divisions still run deep despite the fall of apartheid which led to black majority rule with Mandela becoming the country’s first black President.

It was Mandela who rallied millions of his fellow blacks to dump their hatred of the Springboks and embrace them as true representatives of the country during the team’s 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa.

The South African Sports Committee had apparently elected to disband the Springbok rugby team but Mandela, as portrayed by Freeman who played the role of the anti-apartheid icon in the movie ‘Invictus’, chose to lead them on a different path.

And, as if on cue, millions of black South Africans joined the bandwagon and thousands were at Ellis Park that day in 1995 when the Springboks stunned the world by beating New Zealand, in extra-time, to be crowned World Cup winners for the first time in the country’s history.

However, the dramatic television events of last Saturday have reopened some old wounds and South African Sports Minister

South African Sports Minister, Toko Xasa, released a hard-hitting statement following the incident.

“This behaviour of entitlement by some white South Africans, who continue to think that their whiteness represents better, must come to an end. If it was not for a barbaric nonsensical apartheid system that privileged them, we could not have implemented a quota system to normalise an otherwise abnormal system,” she said.

“Willemse is not just a former Springbok player but in 2003 he was named SA Rugby Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year.

“Players like Willemse, Habana, Kolisi continue to make us proud as a nation and affirm that they are not token players or quota players.”

There have been attempts for the parties to find common ground in the past week but in today’s world where judgment is immediate and social media provides many with the ammunition to say what they think without censorship, the incident has shown the deep divides that still stalk South African rugby.

And a letter penned by one, Gareth Stead, who described himself as a “recovering racist,” in a South African publication this week just showed the challenges which still stalk the game and the country.

“I was dehumanised by oppressive systems called apartheid and colonialism. I am in recovery now,” wrote Stead. “I am deeply grateful that I am being rehumanised to no longer see myself as superior to others and I am mindful that I am still very much on this journey.

“I still make mistakes and get blinded by my past conditioning at times without always being aware of it.

“Ashwin Willemse used the words ‘patronise’ and ‘undermine’ when he touched Nick Mallett and Naas Botha on their studio last Saturday night. These are powerful words.

“The physical ‘whites only’ signs were in your face during apartheid at beaches, public toilets, sports clubs, provincial sports teams (including WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980s when Mallett and Botha represented those two teams).

“Watch a YouTube clip of a Currie Cup final between WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980s and ask yourself what is wrong with that picture? If you can’t see the ‘whites only’ sign then my prayer is that you stop, look and listen a whole lot more. Perhaps you are in denial about how dehumanizing and abnormal society was that so many of us grew up in.”

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