Comments and opinions have flooded South African and international media in the wake of the SuperSport walkout incident on Saturday 19 May. With little information besides what was broadcast live, fans and politicians alike immediately took sides – either in support for or in opposition to Ashwin Willemse’s on-air actions. While national media continued to argue over the little information available, Grahamstown’s local rugby administrators and players have avoided any bandwagon.
Willemse, a former Springbok and Lions wing and current SuperSport analyst, walked out of the SuperSport studio during a live discussion with Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, both former Springboks, after the Lions victory over the Brumbies.
In the discussion on Saturday evening following the Lions vs Brumbies match on SuperSport, Willemse said: “I’ve been in the game for a long time like most of us here. As a player, I’ve been called a quota for a long time and I’ve worked very hard to earn the respect I have now. I’m not going to sit here and be patronised by these two individuals (Mallet and Botha) who played their rugby during the apartheid era, a segregated era.”
Watch video here: Video sourced from SA Rugby Magazine’s Youtube Channel.
His statement sparked strong reactions all round because in it, Willemse appeared to be referring to an alleged slight by his colleagues and linking it to South Africa’s racialised sport history. It remains unclear what sparked Willemse’s reaction; however, social media was rife with both support and condemnation for the Springbok great.
Minister of Sport and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa, weighed in with a statement on Sunday 20 May, calling for the suspension of Botha and Mallett. The Minister said: “This behaviour of entitlement by some white South Africans who continue to think that their whiteness represent[s]better must come to an end. If it was not for a barbaric nonsensical apartheid system that privileged them we [would]not have implemented [a]quota system to normalise an otherwise abnormal system.”
Phumzile Adam, a non-racial sport activist and former player who is now a rugby coach and administrator as part of the South-Eastern Rugby Union (Sedru), opted to wait for the full details of the incident before commenting.
“I need to hear the whole story [before I]give my views,” said Adam. “In our comments we need to be objective and unbiased.”
Adam did, however, echo the Minister’s request for all parties to be suspended pending the investigation. This was on the basis that there was an investigation under way.
“Yes, it is right to suspend them with pay because they are directly implicated,” Adam said. “It might interfere with the investigation if they are [on air].”
Gareth Burger, former captain of the Grahamstown Brumbies, also wanted to hear all the facts before judging any of the people involved in the incident. He agreed with Adam that one should remain unbiased until all of the facts are known.
Burger did, however, say, “I don’t think [Mallett, Botha and Willemse appearing on air] would be a problem, because they haven’t been found guilty of anything.” Burger questioned the Minister’s statement.
“Without information, how can you suggest that people must be suspended?”
While the spark for Willemse’s walkout has not been confirmed by reliable sources, it has been confirmed that SuperSport are currently investigating the matter. Calvo Mawela, CEO of Multichoice South Africa, the parent company of SuperSport, said, “SuperSport has taken note of the strong public sentiment and we take this matter seriously. Whatever the findings, appropriate action will be taken to remedy the situation.”
After the first day of talks on Monday 21 May, it was confirmed that the reasons behind the incident were not racially based; however the actual reasons for Willemse’s walkout were not revealed. All three former Springboks confirmed that the talks were proceeding well.
Willemse said, “We had robust discussions in which I aired my views. I’m very appreciative of the process undertaken by SuperSport. The complexity of the issues [is]very profound.”
Mallett shared these sentiments, saying, “I appreciated the opportunity to air my views. Clearly there are issues that must be grappled with. I am more than happy to collaborate and contribute to resolving this matter.”
Botha believes that the investigation will result in the best possible outcome for all involved. “This was a first meeting and we all had our say, which was helpful. We’ve invested in a process to resolve matters and I’m confident that we will get a satisfactory resolution.”
Despite the revelation that the walk-off was not sparked by racist behaviour, on Wednesday 23 May, Xasa refused to retract her earlier statement.
The internal investigation continues at SuperSport, however all three former Springboks are expected to appear on air this coming weekend.