Ashwin Willemse insists his SuperSport studio walk-off was based on the belief that the incident involving Nick Mallett and Naas Botha was rooted in racism.
Willemse walked off the SuperSport set during a live discussion following the Lions’ Super Rugby win over the Brumbies, alleging that Mallett and Botha had ‘undermined’ and ‘patronised’ him.
A subsequent independent investigation found that there was no underlying racism, although Willemse opted against presenting his testimony during this inquiry. His lawyer suggested that they would take the matter to the Equality Court.
Willemse has not spoken publicly since downing his mic, but on Tuesday the former Springbok wing opened up to 702’s Eusebius McKaiser in a wide-ranging radio interview. He reflected on his life story before explaining why he had opted to walk off the SuperSport studio and maintain his silence until now.
‘Firstly, I attended the hearings and we clarified that we weren’t comfortable with the terms of reference and being able to deal with everything we wanted to. It was voluntary, so we communicated that we didn’t feel it was the appropriate forum. I had nothing to say up to this point, but I understand the magnitude of what happened through the messages I’ve received, the articles and media response.
‘I want to ensure I deal with this matter appropriately because at the end of the day it’s not a light matter. I see it in the teary eyes of elderly folks who meet me in the streets and say “thank you for standing up for me”. I also see it in young people who have thanked me; it’s not frivolous, it’s real pain. My silence was to allow for the process to unfold up to a point where we can deal with it in an appropriate manner. We haven’t been granted that opportunity as yet.’
Willemse said it was crucial that the correct processes were followed through to a definitive outcome.
‘The process as we stand is that I was advised to go to the Equality Court, and understandably so, but upon reflection I’ve indicated to my legal team that the Constitution is there to ensure our human rights are protected, and out of respect for that, we must honour the submission that SuperSport will take the matter to the Equality Court, and they will participate in that process.’
Botha resumed his on-air SuperSport duties last weekend, while Mallett is soon expected to make his return. Willemse said he had made an effort to speak to both parties.
‘I’ve reached out to Nick and Naas because I’ve seen the effect on my family, and so I can understand [it would be the same for them]. I don’t think it will compromise the process unfolding… I reached out on the premise of reconciliation. I would engage in the same spirit with all parties involved, including employers SuperSport. It’s now about the restoration and provision for people’s equality and human rights to be respected.
‘I’m hoping that the process undertaken will legitimise or illegitimise what we believe is our genuine pain. I’ve been clear to SuperSport that I believe that this incident was rooted in racism, and their unwillingness to accept that is not my doing. So let’s take this to an appropriate forum, and let an institution that is there for the purpose of dealing with these matters tell me whether or not I have legitimate reasons to feel the pain that I have.’
Last week, Willemse graduated with a masters of management in entrepreneurship and new venture creation degree from Wits University, which he said was an achievement beyond his wildest dreams.
‘I am enormously proud, it’s rooted in who I am and my story. It never crossed my mind that I would walk through the doors of a tertiary institution, no one in my family has done that before… It was never even a thought because as a youngster I just wanted to be able to finish school and get a job.’