Racism in Rugby?

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Two years ago this month, Ashwin Willemse walked off the set of a SuperSport discussion with fellow Springboks Naas Botha and Nick Mallett claiming they were racists who had treated him with contempt. He declined to participate in an inquiry organised by SuperSport and to take his case to the Equality Court. He chose instead to seek the justice he claimed he was owed by placing his trust in a promised investigation by advocate Buang Jones who is the Gauteng Regional Manager and acting legal head of the SA Human Rights Commission.

Eighteen months later, another Springbok, Eben Etzebeth, also faced claims of racism and Buang Jones hastened to Langebaan where four complainants are seeking a million rand compensation from Etzebeth. Jones organised a community meeting where he effectively pronounced Etzebeth guilty and laid a hate speech charge against him at a local police station.

Jones recently failed in his attempt to become the Deputy Public Protector.

I have no interest, let alone a vested interest, in rugby but I do become concerned when people with a high public profile use their influence to the detriment of the common good and in conflict with the ideals which Nelson Mandela articulated at the Rivonia trial.

The campaign against Etzebeth raises an obvious and fundamental question. Why would a man depicted as venomous racist devote his life to a contact sport in which he must not only absorb intense physical pressure from black men of equivalent size, but shower with them, room with them, travel with them and fraternise with them socially?

And if rugby is an innately racist sport why do manufactured scandals such as the SuperSport example not occur in the women’s version of the game?

On the morning of 15 May, I sent an email requesting an update on the SuperSport and Etzebeth events to Gushwell Brooks who is listed on the SA Human Rights Commission website as the media liaison officer.

There was no response so, on 18 May, I resent the email shown here:

Dear Mr Brooks,

I am re-sending this email as I have not received a response from you to the email which was sent to you four days ago. There has been no indication that this email did not reach you.

By tomorrow – 19 May – it will be exactly two years since Ashwin Willemse walked out of the SuperSport studio claiming that Naas Botha and Nick Mallett were racists – an accusation neither of them had previously faced.

You will recall that SuperSport then appointed an investigatory panel led by Advocate Vincent Maleka and Professor Adam Habib with which Willemse, significantly, chose not to co-operate.

Maleka and Habib found that Willemse’s racism claims were devoid of truth.

Willemse’s lawyer, Nqobizitha Mlilo, then said that they would take the matter to the Equality Court, defaming Advocate Maleka in the process by saying that the SuperSport inquiry had a ‘pre-determined outcome’:

“We are finalising the formulation of the relief. The report by Adv Maleka SC is irredeemably flawed both conceptually‚ and on application of basic principles of law.

“We expressed a view to Adv Maleka SC that he (Adv Maleka SC) was being used to sanitise and chlorinate failures by SuperSport to deal with a number of reported incidents of racism by the gentlemen in question.”

Willemse seemed not to share Nqobizitha Mlilo’s sentiments in this regard because, in July 2018, he announced that he was not proceeding with his Equality Court application but would rely on the SAHRC investigation by Buang Jones to bring him the justice which he claimed he was owed.

Despite the evidence gleaned by Maleka and Habib, the SA Human Rights Commission nevertheless forged ahead with its own investigation headed by Buang Jones, the Gauteng provincial manager of your organisation who, in July 2019, seemed to suggest that racism was rife and pervasive at SuperSport:

‘There were reports in the media alleging that there is a culture of racism within SuperSport and that is why we have decided to broaden the scope of the investigations. So that we allow contractors and employees of Supersport to come forward and assist the commission and find appropriate remedies.’

Fourteen months have elapsed since Mr Jones announced that he was leading this investigation and, at the time, the SAHRC called for written submissions by 31 May last year. As the SAHRC normally responds with alacrity to allegations of racism by white people, please could you inform me what the outcome of Mr Jones’ investigation into the alleged racism of Naas Botha and Nick Mallett was and when you, as spokesman, made his verdict known to the public.

In November last year, Mr Buang Jones, was asked the following question in parliament by ANC MP Xola Nqola:

“Do you honestly think Eben Etzebeth is a racist lunatic who must be isolated from society?”

This was a consequence of Mr Jones travelling all the way from Gauteng to Langebaan in October last year to arrange a community meeting where he made the following un-denied statements:

Equating Etzebeth with Angelo Agrizzi and Adam Catzavelos, Jones, as the supposedly neutral legal head of the SAHRC, said that Etzebeth had “always” got away with racist behaviour and that the SAHRC would put an end to this situation.

“He always got away with it. But this time around, it stops here,”

He provided no evidence to buttress this allegation and this clearly emphasised a perception that, in race relations matters, the SAHRC is not an honest and neutral broker – see here .

Here is how William Saunderson-Meyer summed up the situation in a Politicsweb article which was headlined A stench pervades South Africa’s Chapter 9 institutions:

The SAHRC seems to be dumbfounded that people are appalled that its legal head effectively declares the subject of a complaint not only to be guilty of an offence that he has not yet appeared in court for, but also several other unspecified offences from the dim and distant past, for which he has never been charged. It means that this juristically critical institution simply doesn’t grasp a basic tenet of the law – innocent until proven guilty.

Jones’ behaviour is that of a mob violence instigator and should bring into question how he got the job.

This clearly brought the SA Human Rights Commission into disrepute – a dismissible offence.

At the time – six months ago – SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum was quoted as saying that the public statements by Buang Jones in Langebaan were ‘problematic’ and would, accordingly be investigated. Jones was asked to stop commenting on the matter.

As such an investigation would not require more than a day or two at most, one must conclude that the SAHRC has concluded its investigation into the manifest and totally inappropriate bias of Mr Jones.

When did you, as spokesperson for the SAHRC, announce that finding? I ask the question because Jones told parliament that he had been ‘completely exonerated’ by the SAHRC in this regard.

My questions are thus:

When did you as spokesperson for the SAHRC announce the outcome of Mr Jones’ investigation into the alleged racism of Naas Botha and Nick Mallett?

If you have not made such an announcement, why has the SAHRC – which is supposed to enhance ethnic comity, not undermine it – allowed such a grievous accusation ( for which no justifying evidence could be found in an investigation of impeccable provenance) to linger in the public mind?

When did you as spokesperson for the SAHRC announce the outcome of the SAHRC investigation – which was announced six months ago – into the brazen ethnic bias of Buang Jones in the Eben Etzebeth matter?

If the allegations against Etzebeth which were articulated in Langebaan by Buang Jones are widely believed by the majority of South Africans, it goes without saying that he would have faced justifiable enmity from the majority of those who gathered throughout the country to celebrate a famous victory when the Springboks returned from Japan after winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Is the SAHRC aware of this enmity and what is its comment in that context?

Thanking you,

Ed Herbst.

By close of business on Monday, 18 May, Gushwell Brooks had not acknowledged my emails and he has yet to do so. What seems likely is that this is an embarrassment which the SA Human Rights Commission hopes will be quickly forgotten.

Both Nqobizitha Mlilo and Buang Jones effectively accused SuperSport of being a hotbed of racism and, as false accusations in this regard are hardly unknown in this country, it is incumbent on Jones to make his findings known. He has publicly spoken of ‘a culture of racism’ within the company but, before and subsequent to the evidence-free racism accusation by Ashwin Willemse, no proof that racism is an innate part of the corporate culture at SuperSport has been provided.  If Gushwell Brooks ever breaks his silence perhaps he can produce the written submissions which the SAHRC called for by 31 May last year – if any exist:

The Commission has deemed it appropriate and in the public interest to broaden the scope of its investigation to probe other allegations of racial discrimination at SuperSport which fall outside the scope of Maleka SC’s independent review.”

Written submissions must be made by May 31 before the investigation gets underway.

The Solidarity Research Institute in its report of 5 April 2017 provided conclusive proof of anti-white bias by the SA Human Rights Commission and, if Buang Jones can provide no evidence of the claimed ‘racial discrimination at SuperSport’, then Solidarity can rest its case.

Unlike Ashwin Willemse, the two rugby broadcasters he accused of racism, Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, co-operated fully with the SuperSport inquiry.

Two years ago when Willemse first made the racism claims which could not be substantiated, the virtue-signalling Race Merchants avidly supported the man who became an overnight multi-millionaire in the highly-controversial Goldfields BEE transaction even though he has made no discernible contribution to the increasingly-moribund mining industry in this country.

Two years have passed since Buang Jones made his claim of a corporate culture of racism at SuperSport and no evidence to substantiate this accusation has been forthcoming from the SA Human Rights Commission. This is reprehensible but hardly surprising given the research findings of the Solidarity Research Unit.

Clearly, the SA Human Rights Commission is in no hurry to dispel the cloud over SuperSport created by Ashwin Willemse and Buang Jones and perhaps  Andre Gaum  as a paid commissioner and a lawyer would care to comment on the ethics of such behaviour. I am sure that Dr Eugene Brink and Connie Mulder of the Solidarity Research Unit would welcome his insights as would the rugby enthusiasts of all ethnic groups throughout the country who reacted so positively to the triumph of the Springboks in Japan last year.

Just as Naas Botha and Nick Mallet unhesitatingly gave their co-operation to the SuperSport  inquiry so, too, has Eben Etzebeth  cooperated fully with the more recent SA Human Rights Commission investigation but, as Sara Gon has pointed out, equitable treatment  from the Equality Court – should this case ever get that far – is not a given.

There is a wider context to this.

Rugby is routinely scapegoated to distract attention from the country’s devastating governance failures and an innate ANC culture of corruption and impunity which impacts severely on the poor and as a means of exacting retribution against the white minority in South Africa.

We see this most often in the context of obligatory, ANC-imposed ethnic quotas for sports teams, a concept based on race not merit which has been rejected by the United Nations.

Article 6 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism is unequivocal:

 “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” 

Despite this, in 2007 ANC MP Butana Khompela threatened, through the ANC, to withdraw the passports of the Springboks unless the team which subsequently won the Rugby World Cup was comprised of mostly black players. Khompela even went so far as to suggest the confiscation of rugby stadiums – private property – should his demands not be met.

As the Irish Times laconically noted:

Sure enough, Khompela’s anger had subsided enough for him to attend the final at SA Rugby’s expense, dressed in a Springbok jersey.

Notwithstanding his eager acceptance of this freebie, Khompela’s enthusiasm quickly waned. A year later he called for the banning of the Springbok emblem, denigrating his white fellow South African citizens in the process.  He also said he wanted to vomit on the Springbok jersey which he had been happy to wear a few months previously when an all-expenses paid trip to France was on offer, an offer that he could not bring himself to refuse at the time.

(Khompela, who was implicated in the Travelgate scandal, subsequently became a fervent supporter of Ace Magashule in the corruption-plagued Orange Free State.)

In 2014, Fikile ‘Razzmatazz’ Mbulala, then the Minister of Sport, threatened to ban the Springboks, Bafana Bafana and the Proteas from international competition unless black players made up 60% of these teams. Nothing came of this bombastic ultimatum.

In 2016, ANC MP Strike Ralegoma again called for the banning of the Springbok emblem but the ANC quickly distanced itself from such sentiments.

The SA Institute of Race Relations Survey for 2019 showed that the majority of black respondents felt that race relations were improving – something we experience in our everyday lives.

Their three top wishes were ‘creating more jobs’, ‘fighting corruption’ and ‘improving education’ and the majority – 64%  – said that they had not personally experienced racism.

The majority of black people interviewed in the survey – 82% – felt that sports teams should be selected on merit and not in terms of a politically-imposed racial quota system.

This mirrors the sentiments they have expressed in this survey in previous years, sentiments which undermine the efforts of those who seek to widen the ethnic divide rather than promoting Nelson Mandela’s ideals of nation-building through reconciliation.

When questioned about his conduct by a black parliamentarian, Jones’ response was the hackneyed trope of being quoted out of context.

The Springbok victory in Japan last year will increasingly nullify the efforts of those who, for personal or political reasons, seek to demonise rugby as a racist endeavour.

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Ed Herbst started his news career as a photographer with the Natal Witness in 1968 but quickly switched to reporting while retaining an interest in photography. He joined the SABC in its Pretoria news office as a camera reporter in 1977, one year after television was introduced in South Africa. In 1978 he was seconded to the SABC’s Windhoek office for six months to cover the run-up to the country’s UN-monitored election and was then posted to the SABC’s Sea Point news office. He asked for early retirement in 2005 because of pervasive SABC corruption, news censorship and unaddressed abusive treatment of staff. From 2007 to 2009 he was employed as a consultant in the media department of the Cape Town municipality but became a pensioner when personal circumstances forced him to retire. He now writes without remuneration for local websites about the interface between media and politics. He is writing a book on media capture after 1994.