This past week the vulgar dysphemism “Shitstorm” has been used regularly across the country. It has been mostly accompanied by the television brand, as in “What do you think of the Supersport, let me say, storm?” It has escalated from a mysterious on-air exchange that left viewers bewildered and in discomfort into a matter of national anger. Ministers, politicians, commentators, shysters from all corners, the Twitterati and just about everyone else has had an opinion based on almost no facts at all. Temperatures are raised and the players involved, Ashwin, Nick and Naas have been taken off the air.
We have a major storm. Make no mistake. However it is also an opportunity. You see I have been there.
In my last days on 702 an issue arose concerning school discipline and black schoolgirls’ hair. It seemed, initially, a trivial issue compared to others in the news. Various arguments were made and some listeners’ tempers were raised. I made the point that some hair styles I had seen were over the top and showbiz and asked where must a school draw the line? I was, in my mind, referring to styles I had seen in old magazines at the barber’s shop and was attempting to play the role of a moderate devil’s advocate.
Then a similar storm arose and by morning, John Robbie had said that all black girls’ hair was over the top! I received death threats and was likened to some of the worst racists in our history. I kid you not! It was most depressing and caused all sorts of self-doubt. The volume of toxic abuse continued to grow but, just as worrying, was the level of misplaced support from bigoted and racist quarters. I was an unwitting bandwagon for circuses that did not understand from where I was coming. It was truly dreadful.
Then Advocate Thuli Madonsela got in touch. She had heard the exchange and wanted to speak to me about it. I think she wanted a quiet cup of tea and a chat but my producers, God bless them, saw a greater opportunity. They persuaded her to come on air the next day. It was a hugely busy morning and, as a result, her contribution consisted not of a long item but of a number of interventions spread over two hours and punctuated by news, sport, traffic and various regular features. The end result, thankfully, was a degree of thoughtful repetition.
The reaction was fantastic and the vast majority said it was valuable and educational. The message that came across, again and again, was that because of the past here, white people often walk a thin line of giving huge offence to others. Not always, but often, this is totally unintended. It exists nonetheless. I certainly did not wish to offend anyone and indeed, had built up a record of condemning racism and defending non-racism to a degree that some people consider over the top. My belief that black people cannot be racist is a case in point. All people can be rude and bigoted but, as with anti-Semitism and Jewish oppression, I believe historical practice has made the definition exclusive. Over history, racism has overwhelmingly favoured white people over others so the insult has to be borne by them alone. I believe that sincerely and it helps me to navigate through the wonderful New South African adventure. Others disagree.
However, SA is a very sensitive place and memories are both long and short. Inadvertently my hair comments hit nerves that painfully exposed a past of racism, sexism, cruelty, indignity and abuse against black women who were often referred to as “girls”. That offence led to anger against me and, due to the radio platform I enjoyed, it multiplied and magnified. The anger was real even if the target was unwitting. I am a nice guy but somehow caused huge offence to other nice people who did not understand how I could be so cruel. I now understand it. Thank you Thuli, for your patience and ability to explain this emotive issue. It was, and still is, a hugely valuable lesson to all who heard it.
I do not know exactly what happened in that Supersport Studio. I do know that Nick Mallett has a very strong personality and, how shall I put it, rarely labours under the misapprehension that he might ever be wrong. That is part of his charm. I do know that Naas Botha has a wicked sense of humour and an ability to keep you guessing as to his intentions. He is a proud Afrikaner and in my experience, a proud member of the New South Africa and what it stands for. I do know that Ashwin Willemse has risen above massive early disadvantages in life to achieve truly unbelievable heights in rugby. Had he not suffered injury he might have gone even further, such was his ability to score tries from nothing. I have always found him to be fun and extremely knowledgeable about the game. I genuinely like and respect all three. Clearly something has caused huge offence? Was it deliberate? Was it unintended? That is for the Advocate appointed to decide.
I do know that black Springboks are judged by different standards than their white team mates by many, not all, white fans. They have to be twice as good to be noticed and then make less mistakes to be accepted. It was the same with English-speaking white rugby players in the past when the game was run by Afrikaans-speaking white people. Maybe it is human nature in a divided world not to trust so-called-outsiders. Bryan Habana was called a quota player before he had even been given a chance to show his magic at top level.
I also know that in Supersport there are many people from all backgrounds who have outstanding technical and broadcasting ability. In many ways they are ahead of the transformation curve. However there is, amongst some, the same feeling that different people are sometimes judged by different standards. Rugby expertise and being merely a fan have sometimes been confused in the past when it has come to promotions and decision making. Many staff are afraid to raise the issue. Once again unintended offence. This is not so much a criticism but an observation of the country in general and the recognition of an opportunity for doing good. The unfairness of the past is still reflected today in housing, education, health and in the workplace to name just a few areas. The challenge is in recognising this and in people of goodwill working together to eradicate it for the good of the country. Understanding the other person’s perspective is the first step. It was with me. Can it be done without rancour and finger pointing? That is the question.
Supersport has to get to the bottom of the issue and, of course, there are reputational and commercial factors at play. I bet we will find that unintended offence was given and maybe this has been a festering sore for ages. Maybe I will be proven wrong? I hope it can be resolved with magnanimity and understanding. The big question is, will it be isolated and dealt with in-house or can the whole event be elevated into something much more valuable for everyone in SA? Handled well it can become an example from which all of us can learn and benefit. The issue is, after all, a microcosm of one of South Africa’s major challenges.
Thuli Madonsela might just be the person to call.