Ashwin Willemse
Image: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

When Ashwin Willemse called me out of the blue to meet for coffee some time ago, I was excited and knew exactly what I was going to ask him.

How did a poor Afrikaans-speaking boy from a broken home in rural Caledon become this multi-award-winning Springbok rugby player? Many of the young men from his home town are absorbed into gangs, abuse drugs and find themselves circulating through that revolving door called the prison system. I knew within minutes of our first meeting why this rugby winger rose to the top of his game − discipline, determination and a good dose of humility.

That is why when Ashwin snapped on the television set of SuperSport last weekend, two things were immediately clear to me. One, this generous and humble man had been driven to the edge. Something must have upset him over time and he could no longer take it. Two, the way he addressed his grievance was completely within character − calm, deliberate, thoughtful, but direct.

The live incident caught on tape went viral on social media and, true to form, many white South Africans launched into Ashwin for being disrespectful and unfairly charging his co-presenters, Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, as being patronising bigots. Black South Africans, in the main, instantly expressed solidarity with Ashwin and even the new minister of Sport would, within hours, put out a statement of support while calling for a swift investigation.

So far, black and white South Africans played dutifully to the historical script − blacks saw white racism, whites saw black petulance. That split in opinion is not unexpected in our divided country; the much more interesting question is: Why do two groups of people staring at the same event on television “see” two completely different realities?