Ashwin affair: A TV debate could be cathartic

    2018-05-21 13:23

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - High-profile sports pundits, let’s stay cognizant of, are the central figures in the storm that has broken loose around Ashwin Willemse’s weekend SuperSport studio walkout.

    So here’s a thought, even if some might brand it naive: aren’t those pundits suitably equipped - they’re also “rugby people”, something frequently touted as a harmonious virtue - to thrash out the flashpoint in a suitably constructive way, for public consumption?

    At the considerable risk of generalisation, I may not be the first husband who has been reminded by his wife, occasionally with some conviction, that talking is good; talking solves problems.

    There is pretty widespread acknowledgement that South Africa was pulled back from the strong risk of ruinous violence and destruction at the tail-end of apartheid rule by rational minds coming together, from a gamut of ideological and cultural persuasions, to negotiate a peaceful, democratic passage ahead.

    It had its critics, but a forum like the widely-publicised Truth and Reconciliation Commission of that delicate period in the mid-1990s laid bare some raw wounds, provoked tears - often from victim and transgressor alike - but also healed rifts in many instances and brought out some of the best in human qualities.

    Initially earmarked to be held in camera, a variety of non-government organisations lobbied powerfully for media access and got their way; some of the higher-profile hearings earned live television broadcasts.

    We must be as wary, at this point, of maximising Willemse’s apparent beef (primarily, it seems) with co-pundit Nick Mallett - the undoubted heavyweight and best-remunerated of SuperSport’s studio rugby panellists - as we must of minimising it, I suppose.

    Sports stars, including those who shift into punditry, are not without egos.

    Whether that is the slightest of contributors or wholly irrelevant from instance to instance, this is not the first time someone has left (tabloid culture would be to almost automatically brand it “stormed”, something Willemse quite emphatically did not do) a live chat in some pique.

    It happened extremely recently in England, where former football hard man Graeme Souness - a legend of Liverpool’s all-conquering heyday - walked off set during Sky Sports coverage of a Premiership match.

    Admittedly his actions came during an advertisement break, but he cited repeatedly being cut off while trying to make a point. Souness reportedly later apologised to the production team, and the issue is believed to have been put to bed.  

    This instance has a bit more spice and complexity, not only because Willemse handed in his mike, as it were, during live screening, but as he brought up issues of South Africa’s stormy heritage.

    He said he refused to be “patronised by two individuals who played in an apartheid/segregated era”.

    At this point, facts surrounding the lead-up to his actions are a glaring scarcity … although that, as predictably as day becomes night, has been no obstacle to instant, strong and often crude emotion across all available forums of expression in South Africa.

    In itself, it is a sign of the delicate societal dynamics at play; an indicator of the simmering tensions still prevalent in all corners of the country.

    The Ashwin Affair is pretty trivial, in the great scheme of things. And yet it is also, when you pause for deeper reflection, so … well, not.

    Good luck to SuperSport as they painstakingly, no doubt, explore bureaucratic “proper procedure” behind the scenes in their quest, presumably with some urgency, to decode and then deal with it.

    Bosses at Randburg will be wincing already, mindful that they are likely to be as widely damned over what they do, or opt not to do … or even as they attempt to find that elusive middle ground in judgement/action.

    Which perhaps only adds credence to a possibility of letting the broader public in on all this.

    Would it really be a crackpot or unworkable idea to reunite Saturday’s Super Rugby panel for an hour’s spirited debate, perhaps anchored/arbitrated anew by Motshidisi Mohono, who dealt with the initial on-air contretemps in profoundly professional and cool-headed fashion?

    With apologies for dredging up South African political cliché, we might get some valuable truth, enabling us to make up own minds on rights and wrongs in the controversy, and even the chance (as neither of Mallett or Willemse are by nature or track record unreasonable) of a pleasing measure of reconciliation.

    Solution through markedly transparent dialogue?

    It’s not wholly uncommon. Our country’s history goes a long way to proving it.

    Some sort of hour-long, clear-the-air session on SuperSport 1, in a prime-time spot?

    It would not be wanting for “eyes” …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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