News24.com | On Ashwin Willemse, AfriForum and the ‘whites only‘ signs that are still there

My name is Gareth Stead. I am a recovering racist. I was dehumanised by oppressive systems called apartheid and colonialism. I am in recovery now.

I am deeply grateful that I am being rehumanised to no longer see myself as superior to others and I am mindful that I am still very much on this journey. I still make mistakes and get blinded by my past conditioning at times without always being aware of it.

Ashwin Willemse used the words “patronise” and “undermine” when he touched Nick Mallett and Naas Botha on their studio last Saturday night. These are powerful words.

To “patronise” means to treat with apparent kindness which betrays a feeling of superiority. In other words, Nick thought he was being nice when he asked the producer to let Ashwin go first but Ashwin was exposing this as an act of kindness based on superiority.

Who put Nick in charge? Who made Nick Mallett the spokesperson for Ashwin Willemse? Presumption, patronising acts, and assumptions about people are not our friends. Before you accuse me of making assumptions too, I am honestly trying to respond to simply what I saw on the longer of the two video clips doing the rounds on social media.

To “undermine” means to lessen the effectiveness, the power or the ability of another, especially gradually or insiduously. There is a power thing going on in that studio. This is what we need to call a “whites only” sign that still exists in so many places today including that studio.

The physical “whites only” signs were in your face during apartheid at beaches, public toilets, sports clubs, provincial sports teams (including WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980s when Mallett and Botha represented those two teams). Watch a YouTube clip of a Currie Cup final between WP and Northern Transvaal in the 1980s and ask yourself what is wrong with that picture? If you can‘t see the “whites only” sign then my prayer is that you stop, look and listen a whole lot more. Perhaps you are in denial about how dehumanising and abnormal society was that so many of us grew up in.

Kallie Kriel and AfriForum are not helping by trying to deny apartheid as a crime against humanity but then cry for murders of white farmers to be called genocide. This contradiction betrays their real agenda. Every murder is wrong and is a tragic crime against a human being, whether it be a farmer or someone from Nyanga.

Apartheid was a crime against humanity. It dehumanised black people and it dehumanised white people. What is the point of comparing it with the Holocaust? All these crimes against humanity were off the charts and wounded the soul of a nation so deeply that the journey to healing and recovery is long and hard.

I am glad the physical “whites only” signs have been taken down since 1994 but I am saddened that in reality today those signs are still up in so many places. Today they are no longer physical signs but today they are subliminal and they are about power, trust and perception.

Walk into a restaurant, go to a church, ask for assistance at a car dealership and see what is going on? Who is in power? Who is trusted the most? What are these pictures communicating to us and our children subliminally? Is it a normal, transformed and diverse society or are we repeating and reinforcing the patterns of historic injustice?

When Ashwin referred to Nick and Naas as players from the “segregated apartheid era” I was hearing him give some serious pushback. Was he playing the race card? Possibly. Was he reminding Nick and Naas of where they come from? Sure he was.

Effectively Nick and Naas are the quota players in that studio. The target for WP and Northern Transvaal was 100% white by law in those days. If Aswhin had played in the 1980s he would never have played for either of those two teams or the Springboks, no matter how good he was.

If we had entered our democracy in 1980, would Nick and Naas have played for the Springboks? Probably, but we will never know, will we? What if there had been a better black player in the No.8 jersey who had competed fairly for that position in WP at the time of Nick Mallett? Would we then know who Nick Mallett is today?

We will never know the answers to these questions because we cannot get the 1980s over again. What we must do is to acknowledge that it was an abnormal time when injustice was rife and many were in denial, especially sports people who just wanted to get on with the game.

When I was in Pretoria Boys High School in Grade 8, I will never forget an incident when certain Afrikaans schools chose to boycott the swimming gala we were about to have at the Hillcrest Swimming Pool. Why? Because we had a black swimmer in our team. The only reason we had a black child in our school was because he was the son of someone from the Malawian embassy. No South African black child was allowed in our school, but for the children of diplomats from the rest of the continent, there was this loophole in the apartheid laws.

I am sad to admit that I had not noticed the “whites only” sign that was up in my school up until that point in time. I thought it was normal to be in a school of 99% white kids. This incident provoked my conscience. It started a journey in my life. I realised there was a “whites only” sign up where I was.

Somehow I decided to write a letter to the Pretoria News as my little act of protest. I wrote that if we did not address this issue and call out these schools who were boycotting the gala then there was no hope for us to ever compete in the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup. To my amazement my letter got published but the gala went ahead without those Afrikaans schools. That was 1983.

Today that “whites only” sign in my school is down but what about the other signs? When will PBHS get its first black principal? Will white kids leave when it does? These are important questions.

Quotas, transformation targets or BEE scorecards are always going to create problems. Nobody wants to be that guy who got there because he was patronised. We all want to be there on merit. If the playing field was so unlevel for so long, then it‘s only right to address the wrong by letting the disadvanted team swop sides and play downhill. But for how long? When will the historic injustice and its legacies be adequately corrected. Difficult to tell.

So, let us acknowledge that these imperfect mechanisms are necessary for a season to deal with historic injustice, to normalise society again until more of those “whites only” signs have been dismantled from our culture and our blind spots have been healed so that we can be human and see humans again.

I look forward to a day when we live in a non-racial society. But that day has not yet come. We are still on our journey towards freedom. We have not progressed enough. But lets not stop now and here. We need to take more time to have constructive dialogue on these issues, we need to take courageous action that will help us progress together.

I think Ashwin Willemse took courageous action on Saturday night. I think Nick Mallett, Naas Botha, the SuperSport producers and owners can match his courage. Trying to damage control and restore “normality” to that studio will be a mistake.

Let‘s have the conversation. Let‘s go there. Let‘s acknowledge what was really in that room. Let‘s figure out what emotional intelligence, respect, awareness, appreciation, honour and honesty is required to make that studio the transformed space it can really be that projects the kind of future we want for our children.

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