Willemse probe: Why Botha and Mallett aren't racist
Mallett said in 2016 that he didn't want to work with Willemse as 'we irritate the hell out of each other'
An independent inquiry into the circumstances around Ashwin Willemse’s on-air walkout last month has cleared Nick Mallett and Naas Botha of racism and they will resume work in due course.
But Willemse declined to participate in the probe led by senior counsel Vincent Maleka, saying it wasn’t the correct forum to address the issue.
According to a letter sent to Maleka by his lawyers, Willemse was adamant that “racism was the cause of the incident and the narrative perpetuated by SuperSport that there was no racism reinforces his view and infringed his human rights and dignity”.
“They specifically reserve Willemse’s right to redress that infringement in an appropriate forum,” Maleka said in the report.At Maleka’s suggestion, SuperSport will refer the report to the Human Rights Commission “for final resolution”.
Before walking off the set during a post-match analysis of the Lions vs Brumbies Super Rugby match on May 19, Willemse said he had been labelled a quota player “for a long time”.
“I’m not going to be patronised by two individuals that have played in an apartheid, a segregated era, and come and want to undermine … I can’t work with people who undermine other people.”
Without submissions from Willemse, Maleka consulted Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, who has written extensively on racism and race relations.
Releasing the report on Tuesday, SuperSport CEO Gideon Khobane said Maleka had interviewed everyone who had been present during the broadcast and had watched footage from that evening as well as two previous games where the trio had worked together.
Maleka said in the Sharks vs Sunwolves and Lions vs Blues games in March, he could find nothing to “suggest unfair treatment towards Willemse”.
“I do not find a pattern of behaviour which could, over a span of time, lead to a build-up of a grievance which could provide a reasonable explanation of the incident of the post-match commentary on May 19.”
Mallett, who told the investigation that he and Willemse were often on the opposing ends of debates, had requested that SuperSport not put put them on air together.
In October 2016 he wrote to an executive producer saying he “really” enjoyed working with Bobs [Gcobani Bobo], Xola [Ntshinga] and [producer] Scott [Seward].
“They are a real pleasure. Xola asks very good questions and Bobs knows enough about rugby to produce interesting clips for discussion. Unlike with the complex Ashwin, there are no agendas.
“It would be great if Ashwin could be moved to the morning show where we don’t have to work together. I think he talks garbage, we irritate the hell out of each other and the working environment is just unpleasant and tense.
“I am very happy to work with Breyton [Paulse], Shimmy [Hanyani Shimange] or Bobs instead as, unlike with Ashwin, I respect their hard work and rugby opinions.”But he and Willemse still displayed professionalism while working together, Maleka found.
On the evening in question, Maleka said there was a pre-match analysis where Mallett and Botha got to speak but Willemse did not because, for technical reasons, they ran out of time and the broadcast was moved to the stadium.
Before the halftime analysis, Mallett stepped out to buy a cup of coffee and bumped into Willemse who was having a smoke.
“Mallett asked Willemse whether he would care for a cup of coffee or a cool drink. He declined the offer, but graciously. This off-the-air incident reflects a sensible relationship between colleagues, at least at that stage of the proceedings.”
Willemse led the analysis during the halftime break, which the report said lasted three minutes and 41 seconds.
Before the post-match analysis, both Botha and Mallett were concerned that Willemse had not been afforded the time to express his views before the match and indicated Willemse should get more time in the coming broadcast. “It was done in a jocular but friendly manner.”
“Botha confirms that shortly before the resumption … he said to Willemse: ‘Okay, Ashwin, it’s all yours’, and then laughed. He said they always laughed and did not consider what he said or the laughter to be patronising to Willemse.”
Mallett recalled Willemse saying to Botha that he did not find this amusing and accused him of being patronising. He also told them not to laugh, although at this point, they didn’t realise Willemse was being serious.
On air moments later, Willemse gave his exit speech, during which he used the word patronising twice and again told them not to laugh. “He clearly felt undermined by them,” Maleka wrote.Maleka said Willemse was interviewed by Khobane and Multichoice SA CEO Calvo Mawela two days after the incident. They asked him if he felt the conduct of Botha and Mallett to be motivated by racism and he “indicated that he did not regard their conduct as racist”.
He was also asked if he considered the two to be racists.
“He indicated that they were not, in his view. He was then asked whether he would be prepared to still work with them. He indicated a willingness to do so.
“I have no reason to doubt the above version as was conveyed to me separately by the CEOs. I do not have any other version from Willemse which casts doubt on the version of the CEOs. I accordingly accept that version.”
Maleka said he found no evidence of naked racism by Botha and Mallett.
The issue of subtle racism was more complex, he said, but in the end he found no proof of this.
“Their conduct was not motivated by malevolent intent or a desire to hurt Willemse. There is a rational explanation or justification for their conduct: they regretted the fact that Willemse was not afforded a prior opportunity to express his commentary or analysis before the commencement of the … match and sought to compensate.”
Maleka dismissed a claim made on social media that Willemse had been outside the studio for most of the second half and therefore was unable to give an adequate analysis, saying Botha and Mallett had told him he was there for most of it, popping out only for a cigarette.He also defended Mallett’s tendency to correct the poor usage of English by fellow analysts, saying he did this to Botha as well, and that it was a habit learned from his headmaster father.
Maleka recommended that a panel be set up to evaluate and provide feedback to analysts and crew immediately after a broadcast; that a code of conduct setting out grievance procedures for analysts be drawn up; and, that all analysts use the sophisticated touch-screen technology.
He also suggested that the trio and anchor Motshidisi Mohono be offered counselling because of the emotional suffering they had endured.
“It is not clear to me that Willemse will approach an appropriate forum to ventilate his claim of racism. SuperSport should take the initiative to refer Willemse’s allegations of racism to the Human Rights Commission for final resolution.”
Khobane said SuperSport had not terminated Willemse’s contract and added that he would reach out to him to try understand his point of view.