WATCH | I was at 'breaking point': Ashwin Willemse

Willemse recalls his shock over the Nick Mallett email: 'If you’re going to feel that way about a person, have the backbone to say it'

14 December 2018 - 09:12 By Karyn Maughan

Former Springbok rugby player Ashwin Willemse sat down to talk about what led to him walking off set during a live Supersport broadcast and how the incident has impacted on his life as well as what he hopes to achieve going forward.

Former Springbok rugby player Ashwin Willemse says he walked off the SuperSport set in May 2018 after being brought to “breaking point”, and is ready to explain to the SA Human Rights Commission what led him to that point.

“I reached a breaking point. The camel’s back was broken. I made a statement where I articulated what I believe is happening to me by the conduct of these two individuals, Nick [Mallett] and Naas [Botha],” Willemse told TimesLIVE on Thursday.

“They infringed my dignity and that’s what I am going to argue… hopefully the process at the human rights commission can affirm that.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Willemse talks of his shock when he found out about an email from Mallet about himself that was sent behind his back.

“If you’re going to feel that way about a person, have the backbone to say it. Having a backbone would mean I could come to you and say: ‘Ashwin, I no longer want to work with you.’

“It was just confirming what I always thought to be the case, but never had evidence to prove.”

He added that he hoped his former black colleagues would also testify against SuperSport.

The commission this week confirmed it would conduct a formal and public inquiry into allegations of racism at SuperSport and investigate the circumstances that led to Willemse walking off set after a tense interaction with fellow analysts Botha and Mallett.

During that interaction, Willemse spoke of being labelled a “quota player” and refused to be “patronised by two individuals who played in an apartheid/segregated era”.

The 2007 Rugby World Cup winner went on to say he “can’t work with people who undermine other people” and that he was “glad it happened on live TV so that people can see”.

The commission’s inquiry will seek to establish, among other things, “whether, and to what extent, Mr Willemse was exposed or subjected to unfair racial discrimination or harassment on or before 19 May 2018 and thereafter during the performance of his duties as an analyst at SuperSport”, and whether “SuperSport has appropriately dealt with the allegations of unfair racial discrimination made by Mr Willemse”.

The inquiry will also investigate “whether SuperSport has received complaints relating to unfair discrimination on the basis of race in its workplace. If so, whether SuperSport responded appropriately to address such allegations and what were the outcomes in respect of each complaint, if any?”

The commission decided to investigate after SuperSport provided it with a report compiled by Advocate Vincent Maleka about the walk-off incident.

Maleka found there was no “naked racism” on the part of Botha and Mallett, and there was no subtle racism that motivated the conduct of Willemse, who did not participate in Maleka’s investigation report.

In the report, it emerged that Mallett had emailed executive producer Scott Seward in October 2016. The email read: “I really enjoy working with Bobs [Gcobani Bobo] and Xola [Ntshinga], Scott. They are a real pleasure... Xola asks very good questions and Bobs knows enough about rugby to produce interesting clips for discussion.

“Unlike with the complex Ashwin, there are no agendas. It would be great if Ashwin could be moved... where we don’t have to work together. I think he talks garbage, we irritate the hell out of each other and the working environment is just unpleasant and tense.”

Willemse told TimesLIVE that he was “shocked” by this email.

“When I read Vincent Maleka’s report, I was surprised by the view that was held, particularly as it was stated in the report. But what shocked me was the communication that was had at the time in 2016; now we’re in 2018 and I’m wondering: so what has been happening without my knowledge, about me, at work, at SuperSport, and yet I see these beautiful smiles in front of me all day?

He added: “I’ve been called a quota player. I’m still called a quota player… by people I don’t even know. I’m labelled so many things. But I’ve reached the point in my life where words will no longer cause any harm. Those words are more representative of the person speaking them, than they are of the person spoken about.”

Willemse said he hoped his former black colleagues at SuperSport would use the commission’s investigation to give evidence about their own experiences at the broadcaster, “because I think society needs to know”.

He said he hoped the process would examine “whether the specifics of my claim, which is that this incident and what has transpired and the entire system… is rooted in racism”.