Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Ashwin Willemse’s stance in walking out of the SuperSport rugby studio needs to be respected unreservedly … but the event will simultaneously have hit Nick Mallett and Naas Botha “like a bolt from the blue”.
SuperSport management also appear to be handling the aftermath of the flashpoint well.
Those are the views of Dr Fanie du Toit, one of South Africa’s most eminent specialists in post-conflict reconciliation as well as a former Maties and Oxford University scrumhalf who once scored the winning try for the latter in the annual Varsity Match against Cambridge at Twickenham – he also had a brief period playing under Mallett’s coaching tutelage at Boland.
Speaking from London, Du Toit, former executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, and currently United Nations advisor in Iraq, told Sport24: “We cannot doubt Ashwin’s integrity on this … he clearly felt something (through his actions on live television on Saturday) very profoundly.
“He risked everything he has and is — and did so quite calmly and measuredly. So whatever the merit eventually of the point he is making, we should respect his stance unreservedly: it was brave, courageous and sincere.
“More than that, given what went down on social media, he struck a deep chord with experiences of many, many South Africans.”
At the same time, says Du Toit, the circumstances of Mallett and Botha – Willemse had accused them of “patronising” him – have to be considered.
“This hit Naas and Nick like a bolt from the blue. They, too, will have feelings that need to be respected, given the public nature of the event … they may have played their rugby under apartheid, but they are giants of the game who deserve respect.
“Perceptions and feelings are important here. It is important not only that Ashwin speak candidly, but that Nick and Naas make themselves vulnerable by speaking candidly too. And this has nothing to do with anyone else but them.
“If they can find one another, they can make an agreement on how to address the issue of the public dimension together, for the benefit of us all.
“I believe we need to have a serious conversation — not a debate between competing views, but an effort to listen and understand each other — between these guys on television.
“It will be a safe conversation, in that they will plan it, as it is too risky otherwise. In this they need to help the public to understand race relations better.
“If racism is a cancer, then we need to become much, much better oncologists and surgeons; we still don’t understand the illness or how to fight it – some ignore it, others want to kill the entire patient.”
In that respect, Du Toit said, comments by the Minister of Sport and Recreation, Tokozile Xasa — who had quickly called for Mallett and Botha to be suspended – were not helpful or responsible.
“The aim is to heal society, not destroy it.”
Du Toit had a message for white rugby fans: “We need to understand that rugby in South Africa does not belong to us, but to everyone.
“We also need to stop complaining about transformation and put ourselves in the others’ shoes.
“We will only get Springbok rugby back as a world dominating force, and restore its wounded pride, if we do so collectively, with the support of all South Africans.
“From what I have seen and read about the SuperSport management, they seem to be handling (the controversy) well.”
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