The Ashwin Willemse saga, despite his sojourn within the Springbok enclave of racism, requires of us to confront our South African reality:
We are a racist society – and in fact, we are a deeply divided society continually using race to ensure we remain divided.
So, while the statutes and the legislative boundaries and borders were removed, the geography and ideological boundaries of apartheid remain intact. Township schools collapsed as people made full use of the new freedoms in order to get their children into the better resourced educational facilities in the better resourced suburbs.
The schools that had upheld the struggles against apartheid repression simply folded and slowly crumbled.
The annual Coca Cola Craven Week, the crown jewel of the South African schools rugby program, pays homage to one of the arch racists of South African rugby history, and ‘black’ parents beam with pride as their children participate in the festivities and rugby matches.
I once interviewed a young ‘black’ player about the legacy of Danie Craven – and his response was: “I would like to thank Danie Craven for this opportunity.” History seems to have a peculiar ambiguity in South African sport. Beyond the framework of the projected image of South African sport, specifically rugby, is the horrible reality of a failed social experiment: It should be noted that life is about much more than the outcome of a rugby match, it’s about much more than the ranking place of a rugby team, life is about much more than the skin colour of the captain of a rugby team.
Life is about improving the lives of your fellow citizens and this cannot be achieved if you continually support the systems of suppression of which the elite sports system forms an integral and vital part.
In essence, the standard of excellence in rugby has been accepted as being the Springbok standard, systematically ordained by the very liberators we praise as they crippled the township sports structures in their efforts to liberate elite sport.
The systems that were prevalent within the townships, promoting egalitarianism, equality, social empathy, striving for social justice and political awareness through sport, were considered inferior to the apartheid systems of elitism.
Sport, which was employed in the townships to encourage social cohesion and grassroots patriotism, became the tools of deception. Naspers, which was established by JBM Hertzog in 1915, gained televisual control of all rugby shortly after the final whistle blew in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
Unification in rugby was a ruse to garner support of marginalized communities, promising much and delivering nothing. The rich histories of township clubs and structures were superfluous to the brand needs of the Springbok system and were simply discarded. Using ‘black’ faces, the Springbok was remade and repackaged as a symbol of unity and social cohesion, despite the protestations of every fibre of its DNA.
Chester Williams adorned the cover of the very first SA Rugby magazine published in April 1995, yet it was only in June of 1996 that the next ‘black’ face appeared – that of Jonah Lomu! In September 1999 Breyton Paulse became the 3rd ‘black’ person to appear on the cover of SA Rugby magazine – 3 covers between April 1995, and September 1999, nogal. The fundamental question that needs to addressed should be: what was the nature of the system that allowed for the systemic exclusion of the vast majority of the population from the very system that privileged the Springbok?
In a society such as South Africa where apartheid geography, and the apartheid economic eco-system is still fully intact, the use of ‘black’ faces in ‘white’ spaces becomes a necessary evil. It is within this poisonous environment that transformation takes place. Those ‘blacks’ that are deemed worthy of a space within the ‘white’ place have to undergo a process of transformation. The system doesn’t transform, it is incapable of transformation into anything other than what it is.
Those who are transformed are torn away from their social roots, coddled into a new comfort zone, where the stench of the untransformed does not intrude. The Ashwin Willemse incident happened because Ashwin was not transformed. He did not go through the same system as Siya Kolisi or Bryan Habana. Ashwin was an aberration, a shadow of talent and skill from a bad background.
He barked at the system and it is he who is now accused of ingratitude, and it is he who now should apologize. When the system controls you, you do as you are told. “Don’t bark, don’t bite” and of course don’t accuse the system of racism – because there is ample proof in the many television commercials that bracket rugby matches, that racism does not exist. Social cohesion can only happen within a society geared toward cohesion, which South Africa clearly is not. Willemse’s walk out of the Supersport studio is evidence of a lack of cohesion at a sports broadcaster. The Geo Cronje and Quinton Davids incident is evidence of a lack of cohesion within the Springbok camp. The explosion of racial tweets and Facebook posts following the appointment of Siya Kolisi as Springbok captain is evidence of a lack of social cohesion within the social media community.
The Springbok symbol has to be contextualized. It simply cannot continually be presented in a manner that obscures its role in representing apartheid. Ashwin Willemse was spot on when he pointed to Naas Botha and Nick Mallett’s relationship with apartheid. Their sporting knowledge was built on the privileges denied others because of apartheid, and yet they can stand tall because of their Springbok heritage.
History without context is just a nice story and yet the Springbok story is not a nice story at all.