When Ashwin Willemse walked out of a live studio broadcast a few weeks ago, alleging he was being patronised by his fellow rugby analysts, the country went into a frenzy. People picked a side and defended their position as though their lives depended on it.
One thing that cannot be faulted about the whole incident is that it got the country talking about the past and about racism in the workplace, something that barely happens in present-day South Africa. It is as though the majority of companies have decided if they ignore racism long enough, it will just go away. And that could be what caused SuperSport to rush into an ill-advised panel to deal with the issue.
Reports over the weekend are that a group of rugby analysts at SuperSport have penned a letter alleging that racism is more rife than the mere patronising that made Ashwin Willemse walk off the studio set.
It is being alleged white analysts not only receive better assignments than their black counterparts, but receive more money, too. When SuperSport released the findings by Advocate Vincent Maleka following the Willemse incident, it rushed into declaring that “no racism was involved”. This is understandable because it is part of a company whose biggest source of income is in the form of subscriptions from the public. Clearing the air of the stench of racism as quickly as possible seemed prudent. But that was a mistake.
Our history as a country demands that we fully ventilate any workplace issue in which racism is involved. It is not pleasant work, and a lot of egos will be bruised. But the end result is better than sweeping all the grime under the carpet. When Willemse refused to participate in SuperSport’s panel, it should have made alarm bells ring in its head about the state of the institution as a whole. Maleka himself should have asked the question: is this panel the correct forum to deal with an issue as sensitive as racism? Is the employer being a referee and player at the same time?
The haste with which SuperSport sought to deal with and dispose of the allegations of racist conduct betrayed an unwillingness on its part to get to the heart of the matter. Any sane observer would have asked the question: what other kind of racism was found if it had to be specified that the “naked” kind was not found?
Every working day should be a day in which SA as a whole takes a positive step towards healing itself, towards ensuring that the past is not being quietly dragged along into an environment where it becomes near impossible for victims to raise their voices to racist practices. That healing can only begin if there is an overall acknowledgment that however unpalatable accusations of racism are, the best way to deal with them is through an open process, in which even the most intimidated of employees can come forward and state their case.
The emergence of a group of disgruntled black rugby analysts gave SuperSport a second bite at the cherry. It had a chance to do what was not done the first time around, to make the process more open. SuperSport had a chance to set the standard on dealing with racism in the workplace, thus playing a role in the ongoing healing of South Africa.
When that was also apparently hastily resolved, it simply leaves more questions hanging.