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Simplifying the Ashwin Willemse debacle

It was rugby that united us in 1995. Less than 25 years later, it is rugby that’s threatening to divide us. But this is the Smile GOOD NEWS Network, so what is the good news we can take from the Ashwin Willemse saga that has enjoyed blanket coverage in just about all forms of media this week? For quick context, in case you haven’t been following, Willemse did something that most media professionals consider sacrilege – walking out of a live broadcast. It is almost always the first step towards career suicide. So, when someone of Ashwin’s stature does it, we’ve got to ask the most basic question. Why?

But before we get there, the incident itself appears to have been addressed amicably by Willemse and the targets of his anger – rugby icons Naas Botha and Nick Mallet, whom Willemse accused of patronising and undermining him, before he walked away. So why continue talking about something that the protagonists have seemingly already dealt with? I’ll get to that in a moment.

Firstly, like all sports, but especially rugby tends to do – this incident has created two very passionate and very obvious camps of supporters. On Tuesday evening on The Honest Truth (Mondays to Thursdays – 8pm-10pm on Smile 90.4FM), broadcaster and Willemse confidante and biographer, Heinrich Wyngaard joined Benito Vergotine for an in depth discussion on the issue. While he tried his level best to be as objective as possible, the division continued and many of our loyal Smileys took to our Facebook wall to express their displeasure at what he had to say. So I’m writing this in the hope of shedding even more light on why this is such an important conversation that we cannot afford to stop having. I’m going to try my utmost to say what needs to be said in a way that is comfortable and takes into account the sensitivities that makes this such an explosive topic.

Back to the question of why we are continuing to talk about something that is so obviously making many people uncomfortable. Well, that’s another question, isn’t it? But that’s a subject for another day – why we are so uncomfortable with uncomfortable conversations.

Let’s stick to the Ashwin drama and the positives we can take from it. If you are truly interested in the answer to that question, it will require a few conversational ground rules; chief among them, the understanding that it will demand some intellectual heavy lifting that may lead to you having to re-evaluate your emotional constitution. In other words, you will have to ask yourself some deep and difficult questions. But like all things that truly matter, if we all do it together, it will lead to a greater understanding of the things that make us all unique humans. Secondly, I must assume that you dear reader, are not merely interested in the wellbeing of all our fellow South Africans, but eager to act and do what is necessary to move us all closer to the racial harmony we are all longing for. I think the first port of call is to accept that we all project our own conditioning into conversations. In fact, our socialisation determines virtually every aspect of our interactions with others and there’s not much we can do about it, except to be mindful and to correct the detrimental effects it has on others, as we journey through life. If you can accept this as fact, then please read on.

In discussing the reasons why Ashwin walked out of a live broadcast, we cannot depend on shallow analysis or revert to long-held beliefs to make sense of it. This means stepping outside our comfort zones in order to make sense of an unfamiliar something that appears deceptively simple at first. Ashwin over-reacted; Ashwin played the race card; Ashwin was unprofessional; Naas and Nick didn’t do anything wrong; Naas and Nick were condescending and it has been building up. These are all overly simplified, knee-jerk reactions to something that has much deeper roots. We are seeing the tip of the ice berg peeking out above the water line, ignoring the much bigger section that lies invisible underneath that props the whole thing up. It’s our duty to try and understand what’s beneath, because millions of people say they are affected by it. I know this because of a Facebook status I posted immediately after the event, which subsequently went viral and drew attention from a wide spectrum of people, all eager to comment, share their own experiences and find solutions.

Ashwin’s comments of being patronised and undermined is the key to unlocking how to proceed from here. These are words that have finally given definition to the experiences of others who may have been less articulate in expressing themselves. The challenge is that we are dealing with people’s feelings, which are almost impossible to relay to another accurately. Compounding the challenge is the fact that the feelings they feel may cause others to feel accused of something they didn’t intend. The result is an automatic defence, without necessarily wanting to interrogate their own inter-personal communications tools. We may argue that the offended person has a responsibility to toughen up and not be so sensitive, especially since the intention was innocent. But that in itself is a closed circle of responsibility-shifting; a conundrum that blames a victim for being so weak as to become a victim again. When an experience leaves a scar engraved deep in the psyche, then an interested someone must consider that fact when dealing with that person. And I’m still working on the premise that we care enough to not want to inflict hurt, just like we avoid saying something that may upset or hurt our significant other.

Allow me an over-simplification as a final example of why emotional hurt must be trusted, without necessarily being understood. I want you to remember your visit to an exotic location. Maybe you’ve been to London, New York, Paris or Beijing. I mention those places, because I haven’t been to any of them yet. Now I want you to imagine that you are telling me about those places; the sites, the sounds, the people and the culture. Now imagine while you’re talking, I correct you, or disagree with you, or make dismissive sounds. Imagine that I respond to you as if I knew better about everything you had to say about your experiences. It may not even be that blatant. What if you just picked up in my demeanour that I didn’t believe or trust what you’re saying? It would be foolhardy of me, to say the least. I would have no alternative, but to accept whatever you say, because I didn’t have that experience. The experience of being patronised is a subtle one that is deeply hurtful and subjective, but it is also intensely destructive. It is difficult to put into words, which is part of the reason this incident is resonating with so many people. They are latching onto the comments of writers such as myself, who – while we struggle – are finally able to put a finger on something they have been experiencing for a very long time. We are exposing the bottom of the ice berg for everybody to see.

That is the big picture of what the Ashwin issue has highlighted, a powerful subtext that – now that we are aware of it – can help us be better and more effective communicators. As for the future of SA rugby and it’s potential to bring us together again in our diversity, Wyngaard has a fairly obvious solution, which he explains in the podcast above. In Afrikaans, he says it will take Naas, Nick and Ashwin to show this rugby-loving nation a united front and that they are bigger men than one disagreement. Wyngaard says it is Super Sport’s responsibility to show the nation that the three have kissed and made up and that they are able to move forward without any hard feelings.

Better still, the men themselves have acknowledged that they have a lot more to talk about and work through. And that really is the spirit that we all need to adopt. If there’s something about a fellow South African that I don’t understand, let me make it my responsibility to keep talking to them, so I can inform myself, direct my compassion and hone my mindfulness. What we cannot afford to do is to dismiss each other’s hurts and concerns, because that takes us back to the original argument of undermining. We also cannot attack what may in fact be innocent ignorance on one end; and quiet suffering on the other. But rather to accept that we cannot understand another’s experiences. All we can do is respect them enough to avoid causing the same hurts over and over again.


Bobby Brown – Smile Breakfast Anchor, Weekdays 6am-9am