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31/05/2018 11:19 BST | Updated 31/05/2018 11:32 BST

The Ashwin Willemse Incident May Not Be Racist Per Se, But It Tells Us Something About Arrogance

'This incident should serve as an opportunity to reflect and make this a teachable moment for all of us.'

Lee Warren/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images
Oregan Hoskins hands Ashwin Willemse his cap for the 2007 Rugby World Cup. September 2 2007, in Sandton.

Following the Ashwin Willemse on-camera walk-off, MultiChoice CEO Calvo Mawela is reported to have acknowledged that Willemse and his fellow commentators Naas Botha and Nick Mallett will continue talking, but says there are no signs of racism.

It is unclear why the CEO of the parent company of SuperSport — as well as SuperSport CEO Gideon Khobane — concluded that racism was not at the centre of the on-air incident. Maybe it was to quieten Minister of Sport and Recreation Tokozile Xasa, who felt it necessary to comment. Both Mawela and Khobane were at pains to express that they were still trying to get to the bottom of what motivated the 2003 SARU Player of the Year to end his post-game analysis of a match between Australian rugby team the Brumbies and South Africa's Lions abruptly.

This incident is just one of many that must teach us to tread cautiously and not rush to judgment. Ashwin Willemse has not given reasons for what motivated his response, and that must be respected.

It is undeniable that this incident has elicited responses from many South Africans, each interpreting the situation according to his or her background, experiences and life-view, thus once again confirming that our society is as polarised as ever.

In the vein of never letting a good crisis go to waste, this incident should not just serve to confirm what we already know, but it should serve as an opportunity to reflect and make this a teachable moment for all of us.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, racism is "the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person's social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics". These beliefs often manifest themselves on an interpersonal level, but this is not exclusively so, as institutional racism is still prevalent in many societies.

Name-calling and calling people racist ends the discussion, and it forces people to retreat into their respective corners. This is unfortunate, as an opportunity is then missed to engage with each other on an issue that is difficult to grasp, articulate or explain: the issue of being patronised or treated with condescension.

The assumptions that people make of others and their behaviour towards those who are different are always informed by the beliefs they hold, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is, therefore, important that we stop from time to time to reflect on the beliefs and opinions we hold about others, and how our beliefs manifest themselves in the things that we say about (or do to) those who are different.

As human beings, we can reflect and modify our behaviour so that we can prosper, as individuals and as a society. It is a sad and shameful reality that there are people who believe that they are superior to other people based on their race, but a cure to stupidity is yet to be found — we all know that even the gods struggle in vain against stupidity.

However, for most of humankind (or so I hope), because of our shared humanity, there is no sense of superiority but rather acceptance, tolerance and respect of others who happen to be different.

In South Africa, our Constitution affirms that hate speech does not constitute freedom of expression and is thus unacceptable. Our courts have over the years, in applying the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, interpreted demeaning words used by South Africans against those who are different as hate speech.

More difficult to interpret are our actions and words that are not overtly racist or hateful — and it is in these situations that we as South Africans like to rush in and cry racism. However, by doing this, we inadvertently diminish truly racist situations, as we become dulled, almost immune, to incidents of racism. We often just sigh, saying: "Here we go again."

By assuming that Willemse interpreted the way he was treated by his fellow analysts as racism, we are reducing the incident to something that can be easily countered by examples that prove that those involved are not racist. Name-calling and calling people racist ends the discussion, and it forces people to retreat into their respective corners. This is unfortunate, as an opportunity is then missed to engage with each other on an issue that is difficult to grasp, articulate or explain: the issue of being patronised or treated with condescension.

Being at the receiving end of patronising or condescending interactions often results in self-doubt, and it requires a mammoth amount of confidence and strength to fight back without making a fuss.

We all know it: that often subtle, but always stinging — for those subjected to it — words and actions that people employ to show that they are better or more intelligent.

We have all experienced or seen the patronising smile; the over-explaining of something that is elementary; the being ignored and spoken of as if you are not present; the being spoken over or constantly interrupted; or after making a contribution, the conversation carrying on as if you did not say anything; the "Oh, what do you know?" or the "Yes, one can see it like that, but actually it is like this, because I think that it is this" or the "What did you say? One can't ever understand what you say" — or even the eye-roll or dismissive flick of the hand.

Being at the receiving end of patronising or condescending interactions often results in self-doubt, and it requires a mammoth amount of confidence and strength to fight back without making a fuss.

The insidiousness of patronising behaviour is that it is often not recognised by those guilty of it, and it can often be misinterpreted — "I thought they were being nice" — by those who are not its target. The people who are at the receiving end of condescension or patronising behaviour are often told they're "being overly sensitive" or "have no sense of humour".

Those who think that they know better will often tell others that they have no clue — but in a "nice" enough manner that the affected person cannot counter it effectively without seeming "difficult" or looking as if they're picking a fight.

Being patronising or condescending is not particular to people of a certain colour or gender. It is in no way specific to age, income, education or class — for in all walks of life and in every society, there are those who think that no one is as good, as rich, or as bright as they are.

Notwithstanding how this issue is resolved by SuperSport, the on-air walk-off incident by Willemse highlights that even people who are collegial and seem to like each other, can say things or act in ways that are experienced as condescending and patronising.

Trying to handle subtle condescension and patronising attitudes can sometimes feel like fighting windmills, but it is necessary that we find creative and original ways of dealing with it immediately when it arises. Failing to do so builds up resentment and frustration, as was evident in the case of Ashwin Willemse on SuperSport.

It is not far-fetched to believe that South African sports analysts use the q-word when referring to someone who plays a bad game — and who also happens to fulfil the government-imposed quota in a sport — when they talk off camera. If one were to use the q-word in a television studio in front of someone who played a South African sport on merit, but who unfairly got labelled a q-word player, it would be insensitive. If one then shows that person up, disregards their input or constantly interrupts what they have to say when discussing a topic they are all experts in, then that is patronising and dismissive.

From the SuperSport video, it looks as if Naas Botha's comment "I've used all the time before the game, it's all your time" to Ashwin's question on what he (Botha) thought about the game, has a backstory to it, because it was this comment that prompted Willemse to first use the word "patronising". I believe that this stems from an ongoing issue of Willemse not being given enough opportunity to speak, or of him being interrupted constantly.

It is also clear from the video, that despite Willemse first asking Botha and then Mallett what they thought of the match, both Mallett and Botha only look at and answer SuperSport presenter Motshidisi Mohono — completely ignoring Willemse, while answering his question.

It seems that this response by Mallett and Botha was what Willemse found patronising and undermining — and that must be respected, for it was how he, Ashwin Willemse, experienced it. Nick Mallett calling Willemse's outrage "ridiculous" is exactly what notto do — it further added insult to injury, as it failed to recognise and appreciate what Willemse was experiencing at that moment.

Notwithstanding how this issue is resolved by SuperSport, the on-air walk-off incident by Willemse highlights that even people who are collegial and seem to like each other, can say things or act in ways that are experienced as condescending and patronising. Such interaction may or may not be rooted in racism — which is believing that one is better at something because of one's race.

However, it is always rooted in arrogance, because one defines oneself in terms of one's experience or position, combined with the failure to value and appreciate that others who might not have the same position or experience can also be experts able to make a valuable contribution.