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22/05/2018 04:48 SAST | Updated 22/05/2018 04:48 SAST

The Ashwin Willemse Saga: Are Black People Accepted, Or Merely Tolerated?

Some South Africans will no longer be treated as “accessories”. They ask to be “accepted”, as Willemse and many others are asking on a daily basis.

South Africa's Ashwin Willemse celebrates after scoring a try during the Rugby World Cup match at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia.
PA Archive/ PA Images
South Africa's Ashwin Willemse celebrates after scoring a try during the Rugby World Cup match at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia.

I think I was about six years old when my father told me the story about how he had to walk to school in the Karoo winter on an empty stomach.

As a kid in Sub A, now Grade 1, I couldn't really understand my father's sense of resentment, because things turned out fine for him, in a way. After all, he became a teacher and choirmaster, while my mother became a primary school teacher. We had a car; a yellow Ford Cortina station wagon and we had a TV. Life for me wasn't too bad, I thought.

"Maar om net bietjie waardigheid te kry was 'n helse prys om te betaal [But just to achieve a semblance of dignity was an enormous price to pay]," my dad explained.

For people like my parents and many black South Africans, the indignity suffered during apartheid was immeasurable.

I remembered how my parents beamed when they could tell family and friends that my eldest sister became a school principal and my brother a dominee or church minister. We have come a long way to restoring our "dignity", I thought.

I couldn't help but remember the "struggle for dignity" many South Africans have had in the past and continue to have when I watched Ashwin Willemse walk off the SuperSport set during a live TV broadcast on Saturday night. The former SA Rugby Player of the Year spoke about being labelled a "quota player" and being "patronised by two individuals who played in an apartheid/segregated era". Willemse was, of course, referring to his fellow analysts, Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, and calmly added that he "can't work with people who undermine other people".

That moment resonated with me, because it is a scenario that sadly plays itself out every day in our places of work, corporate South Africa, and in the media. It appears that for far too long, toxic cultures have been encouraged at the expense of another's dignity. What happened with Willemse seems to be indicative of a culture in which certain people are merely "tolerated" in certain spaces, but never fully "accepted".

When the Willemses and the Rabadas and the Van Niekerks head on to the sports field, it is about far more than just representing this country. It is about restoring the dignity of the under-represented and affirming their seat at the table.

I remember what it was like working for one of the big corporates in South Africa. In one of my first meetings, I was jokingly asked by a colleague whether I could speak ordentlike or proper Afrikaans, and if I had "all my front teeth", since I was "from Cape Town, you know?" Another friend of mine, who was working in human resources at another corporate, recalled a story of how she was told in a meeting to ensure "that we don't just employ monkey darkies".

I can only imagine the amount of courage it took for Willemse to walk off set. Millions who work under similar circumstances would never have been able to. They continue to suffer the indignity of being "lesser"; their qualifications questioned, their life experiences and opinions invalidated. They will suffer the ignominy of having their different accents ridiculed or their grammar corrected on air, as Mallett did to Willemse in a studio discussion in 2014.

What many South Africans do not realise is the need for the Willemses and many others to have their dignity affirmed. When the Willemses and the Rabadas and the Van Niekerks head on to the sports field, it is about far more than just representing this country. It is about restoring the dignity of the under-represented and to affirm their seat at the table. To affirm to all South Africans that they indeed do belong and deserve their place at the table.

I admit that I do not have the full details as to what transpired between Willemse and his fellow panellists, but it is palpably clear that there has been a history of niggles with Mallett; incidents that should have been addressed earlier. And in my opinion, Willemse clearly felt disrespected, and that enough was enough.

The point is, some South Africans will no longer be treated as "accessories". No longer will they just be "tolerated". They ask to be "accepted", as Willemse and many others are asking on a daily basis.

That is not too much to ask — or is it?

*Boezak writes in his personal capacity.