Rugby: Walkout exposes cracks in SA society

When Ashwin Willemse walked out of a live SuperSport rugby broadcast, it exposed the fault lines in South African society.

For context, Willemse was the only black player to represent the Springboks at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. He was sharing a studio with Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, two giants of South African rugby, whose playing careers spanned the 1980s during apartheid rule.

We do not know what was said off air, but when the cameras returned, Willemse calmly stated: “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 [Mallett and Botha] who played their rugby during the apartheid era, a segregated era.”

While on-air disagreements between studio guests are often hilarious, no one was laughing as Willemse walked out. Almost instantly, the country was divided into two camps, split almost exclusively on colour lines.

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Mallett, Botha and Willemse held talks on Monday and SuperSport have since declared that there was “no racism” at play, but the investigation will continue. “The complexity of the issues is very profound,” Willemse said.

In 2003, Willemse became the first and only player to win South Africa‘s player of the year, players‘ player of the year and young player of the year. Despite this he, and every other black Springbok, will be labelled a “quota” at some point. This poison still festers.

Maybe Willemse‘s walkout will start a conversation that will allow both parties to come together. That is the optimistic view in the age of social media, where any discussions are conducted with loudspeakers and pitchforks. Rugby was supposed to heal the nation; instead, 23 years on from the 1995 World Cup, it is proving more divisive than ever in the Rainbow Nation.

– Telegraph Media Group