By Tim Trengove Jones
Being as butch as I am, I obviously follow South African Rugby.
This, I know, is a very compromising admission, but after all these years perhaps our readership will tolerate this idiosyncratic passion?
Recently, as some of you will know, Supersport experienced the embarrassment of having former Bok player and now commentator, Ashwin Willemse, stalk off the set alleging that Nick Mallet and Naas Botha, his two co-commentators, were condescending towards him. His ire seemed directly mainly at Mallet who, I must admit, I find very full of himself.
Predictably, a storm erupted. The two “white” men were accused of racism. A hearing was conducted by Supersport who, just recently, announced that Botha and Mallet had been exonerated of any taint of racism.
Willemse, however, refused to participate in the enquiry and his side of the story remains untold. However, we do know that, on a previous occasion, and in writing, Mallet had requested Willemse be replaced, claiming that he (Willemse) spoke “rubbish.”
Wherever we go in this country, shades of racism, or racism in the full glare of daylight, presents itself. This incident is a particularly interesting one to me. Rugby is easily and rightly seen as a bastion of White South African nationalism. Along with that, inevitably it seems to me, it is seen as a bastion of machismo, of heteronormativity, of hyper-masculinity. In these guises it might well be the antagonist of gayness.
Perhaps you recall the innuendos and rumours that swirled around former Bok winger, James Small. That his sexuality should have been an issue makes the point, doesn’t it? It is rather like the fussation that erupted when Bavuma scored his first century for the Proteas at the Wanderers: Much delight, and much commentary about a Black player scoring a century for the Proteas. That people made these kinds of noises is not, for me, a mark of progress, a celebration of diversity, not an indication of how far we have come, but how far we still have to go.
The same can be said of the Willemse issue. I don’t know the precise circumstances. Perhaps we never will know. But there, in a Supersport studio, as the Boks become more representative than ever of the diversity of this country, allegations of racism emerge.
Leap to clothing retailing. A woman arrives in a well-known retailer. She is in “the Ladies department.” The only assistant in evidence is a male. She asks him if there is anyone who can help her pick out a garment. He volunteers. “No,” she snaps, “I want to be helped by a woman.” It is pointed out to her that the person assisting her is in fact "in charge" of the Ladies department. This excites a torrent of scorn and disbelief. The customer cuts up rough. The manager is summoned. Finally the “customer” chooses to leave rather than be assisted by a male.
Is this sexism? Is this someone having a bad day and doing what people having a bad day often do do: “spreading the sh*t”, as they say?
Again, a clothing retailer. Again a woman customer. Again said woman asks to be assisted by a woman sales person. This time the male to whom she is talking says, provocatively, “But, madam, isn’t that a little sexist?” This time the customer retreats: “No, I was only joking.” She elaborates further: “I work for the Human Rights Commission so I am very cautious about what I say.”
The sales person responds by saying that not only did he think it sexist to assume that a man couldn’t advise a woman on a clothing choice, but it was also ignorant: “Behind every well-presented woman is usually a male or group of men. Look at Beyonce, look at Rihana. They have male designers dressing them, male make-up artists, male hairdressers.”
The customer then missed a beat. She could have said, “You see? Men dominating everywhere. It is against THAT that I am objecting!” But, perhaps, the sales person could have responded, then: “No. Powerful women are now dictating what they want and how they wish to appear to men, and requiring men to provide them with what they require and demand.”
But instead, the HRC official apologised once more, saying that she had only been joking.
Two similar scenarios in a clothing store. Two different approaches and outcomes. One fraught, the other a bit anxious, perhaps, but happily “resolved.”
Sexism. Racism. Attitudes. Conflict. The Constitution looks toward s a society in which we are “united in our diversity.” All of South Africa has benefited from this vision. Perhaps we as LGBTI citizens have benefited the most obviously in that laws have changed or been struck down to try to allow us to become equal citizens, equal certainly before the law.
Yet, as these three incidents show, sexism and racism still abound. We know this. I don’t wish to underscore the fact. I do wish to stress, once more, how lovely it will be if and when we can all be comfortable in our own skins. When slurs will not occur, or if they do, we will feel secure enough to handle them with ease and confidence.
Dream on. “Dream forward.” It is much better than moaning and whinging.
Oh, and I hope the Boks win the third and final test against England, making it a 3-1 drubbing for the former colonialists. After all, it was the damn English who brought the legislation that discriminates against gay people, and who left it with us when they were driven out.
And you thought we were talking about rugby!
By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying that you are over the age of 18