The Ashwin Willemse affair threatens to be an embarrassment, but not to those one might have thought. Famously, on May 19 Willemse walked off the set mid-broadcast during the post-match analysis of a rugby game. He complained about being patronised by co-hosts Naas Botha and Nick Mallett.
Willemse did not claim racism at the time, but the ANC did. Within 24 hours and based on no evidence, Western Cape ANC's Faiez Jacobs expressed the view that "Ashwin's public walkout is a result of what many black people experience in offices and boardrooms across the country".
Minister of Sport and Recreation Tokozile Xasa called on SuperSport to suspend Mallett and Botha while it investigated the incident‚ saying their continued appearance would "be seen as an endorsement of their alleged racist behaviour".
To his discredit, and possessed of no facts whatsoever, Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, tweeted: "What @Ashwinwillemse experienced yesterday is still sadly an experience for too many South Africans."
What @Ashwinwillemse experienced yesterday is still sadly an experience for too many South Africans. We must build an equal society, where we confine to history a system of racial superiority and inferiority. We must continue to pursue a Diverse SA however difficult it is.— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) May 20, 2018
The only public official who behaved professionally was the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Sport and Recreation, Beauty Dlulane, who said: "The incident is concerning and should be addressed speedily, as it has invoked much emotion... South Africans should be circumspect in commenting on this matter and should allow the investigation to proceed and reach a conclusion. As things are, everyone is venturing an opinion about a matter on which we lack details."
Apparently, an agreement between the parties was subsequently disavowed by Willemse, who wouldn't sign it. SuperSport then appointed an independent lawyer, advocate Vincent Maleka SC, to investigate the incident. Companies often contract outsiders to investigate disputes to ensure impartiality.
Willemse refused to participate. He thought it would be a "fruitless exercise", and there were legal and process issues with which he didn't agree.
Judith February ("Pesky public memory dogs Julius Malema", Daily Maverick 2018) said: "It remains curious, because here was an opportunity for Willemse to set the record straight and to speak in a so-called "safe space", yet he eschewed it. On what basis, one wonders, did Willemse believe he would not get a fair hearing?"
The only implication is that the outcome would not favour Willemse. His attorneys argued that because the relationship of power is skewed, the hearing was always going to be stacked against Willemse.
Really? Willemse was the complainant, not an accused. He would have nothing to lose by participating. Labour law and practice is well established, and the very purpose of investigations and hearings is to balance the power relations. If the processes are flawed, the matter can always be taken further. Why should Willemse be exempt?
Willemse's attorneys have called the investigation and report "compromised and legally flawed". It may or may not be, but we don't know why. It was an opportunity to air his grievances. His legal rights would not have been curtailed. Willemse has said that he's going to the Equality Court.
By not participating, Willemse could not challenge the versions of Botha, Mallett and the studio staff. Maleka produced a 50-page report and did everything politically correctly possible in his recommendations to SuperSport.
Maleka found there was no racism, either personal or institutional. Bizarrely, however, he recommends that the issue of alleged racism be referred to the appropriate legal forum by SuperSport.
Maleka's recommendations were:
1. To consider the establishment of team feedback which should take place immediately after the end of each studio broadcast, to solicit the views of all the analysts about their performance and room for improvement.
Professionals shouldn't need this except on an ad hoc basis. Willemse might be the last person who'd want to subject himself to such a process.
2. Management should consider formulating a code of conduct setting out grievance procedures to deal with interpersonal relationships that impact upon teamwork.
SuperSport probably has such procedures. Employees just have to use them. But if they don't, SuperSport should implement some.
3. SuperSport prefers black analysts to operate the touch-screen because of its sophistication and to "undermine the publicly held view that they did not have the technical skill-set or craft to operate sophisticated equipment..."
Maleka noted that it's always blacks who operate the equipment on the instruction of the analysts. On the day in question, there were two white analysts at the desk and one black screen operator (Willemse) — Maleka fails to mention that also at the desk was a black, female presenter. Maleka recommends that they "rotate the touchscreen operator across the colour line".
SuperSport is damned if it accommodates alleged perceptions of racism, and damned if it doesn't.
4. "Since it is not clear to me that Mr Willemse will approach an appropriate forum to ventilate his claim of racism, SuperSport should take the initiative to refer Mr Willemse's allegations of racism to the Human Rights Commission for final resolution."
So terrified are we of alleged racism, even if the available evidence doesn't support it, that Maleka removed Willemse's agency and did his job for him.
Maleka found there was no racism, either personal or institutional. Bizarrely, however, he recommends that the issue of alleged racism be referred to the appropriate legal forum by SuperSport. It's up to Willemse to decide whether to refer the matter on. He's an adult and can decide whether to take the matter further himself.
So terrified are we of alleged racism, even if the available evidence doesn't support it, that Maleka removed Willemse's agency and did his job for him. SuperSport has said it will refer the matter to the SA Human Rights Commission. It's time for SuperSport management to develop some cojones and ignore this recommendation. It's bizarre.
Maleka also recommended that all in the studio on the day should be afforded counselling, because of the trauma they suffered. Please tell us that Botha and Mallett won't take up the offer! They played professional rugby after all. As February says, the Willemse matter "has not been a helpful barometer of anything substantive and has thus far brought sturm und drang but not much else".
And then, just as it couldn't get worse, on June 22 the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) issued a media release in which it declared the report "a whitewash to cover up the racism still operating in the old white company".
Cosatu rejects the report on the basis that "it did not consider the letter from Willemse's attorneys carefully enough". Cosatu also felt that it didn't adequately consider a published letter from Mallett that allegedly reveals his "baasskap" and how he is led to believe that he can decide which black presenters he works with. Cosatu's interpretation of the said letter is creative.
Seeing Cosatu's Western Cape regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich's name on the release explains much about it. It's irrelevant what Cosatu thinks the situation was. It wasn't a party to the investigation. Cosatu should know that in a forum in which oral evidence is given, a letter setting out a submission which cannot be challenged and cross-examined will not carry the same weight. If Cosatu doesn't know this, then maybe its relevance as a representative of workers has come to an end.
Sara Gon is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.