At this stage in proceedings, we’re all familiar with what happened over at SuperSport, setting in motion a chain of events that has come to illustrate just how polarised some South Africans are on certain matters.
No need to go down that route again, but after seeing some of the responses to Ashwin Willemse’s first public interview yesterday, it might be worth revisiting the former Springbok’s life story.
One of his more revealing interviews came with Irish site The 42 back in 2015, delving deep into his troubled upbringing and how he managed to overcome that adversity.
Let’s get the ball rolling:
Growing up on the outskirts of Cape Town [Caledon], he lived in poverty with his mother and grand-parents. His father had walked out when Willemse was just two years old. Representing his country was as far-fetched a notion as there could’ve been….He wasn’t supposed to amount to anything. As much as he excelled at sport, he wasn’t buying into the dream. Something else made more sense – the seductive and intoxicating world of gang-crime.
Willemse became a member of The Americans – a notorious organisation which boasted of around 10,000 members in their 1990s heyday. He got the gang tattoos, he became a drug mule, he carried out various orders.
He became drunk on the power, the acceptance, the inclusiveness. But he was an easy target too. Willemse came from a broken home. He had no influential male figure in his life. His grand-parents, deeply religious, struggled to keep a watchful eye. He longed for a proper family. He thought he had found one in The Americans.
Quickly and inevitably, things spiralled. He stole. He took drugs. He sold drugs. He shot people. He was shot at. He became, what he later admitted, ‘his biggest client’ because he consumed the drugs he was supposed to sell.
Never get high off your own supply, Ashwin.
At the age of 16, he hit rock bottom:
“Any person, at any age, at any stage of their lives, who contemplates suicide must be carrying a heavy burden. I got to a point where I could no longer carry the weight. I gave up on my dreams. I gave up on my goals, my ambitions. I quit on myself and I wanted to quit on life because it was just too hard and too tough. It was a very low point. I was in the basement of my life. The lights were out and no one was around me. It was a lonely place. A place from which I felt I could not escape.”
When Willemse later woke up in hospital, his rugby coach was there – along with his school rugby team. It was a touching moment. He finally had the family he always wanted.
Ashwin points to a few other incidents that cemented the fact that he needed to turn his life around. One of his childhood friends, a promising athlete, murdered his pregnant girlfriend before turning the gun on himself.
In addition, the house Ashwin was living in was shot up by rival gangsters, resulting in the death of another close friend and two members of The Americans.
To really drive home the point that gang life wasn’t for him, Ashwin’s cousin was raped by four members of his own gang, and he started to search for a way out.
Enter Breyton Paulse, and a small gesture that ended up turning things around:
He was seventeen when then-Springbok Breyton Paulse visited his school.
Another black player. Another winger. Another hero. But where Chester Williams seemed a world away on television in 1995, here was Paulse up close, in the flesh. This was real.
Willemse was a gifted talent. But, as his coach explained to Paulse that day, he had nothing. He came from nothing. A few days later, Willemse received a gift from Paulse in the post.
Inside the box were boots, training kit and money.
“I will probably never be able to adequately capture that moment in words. I felt helpless because all I had was a dream. But the dream was accompanied by a lack of resources. So that gift, that opportunity, changed my world in a way that no-one could’ve imagined. It renewed the burning desire I had. It basically empowered my belief and it elevated me to a higher sense of consciousness.”
Five years later, and Breyton celebrated his 50th test cap with Ashwin on the opposite wing.
A far cry from his early experiences of watching rugby:
We had a small black and white TV. We had no electricity so it was connected to a car battery. Every time someone would drive past the house, we’d lose signal. But after every game, we’d head out into the street and take a plastic bottle and fill it with grass.
We’d run around and play until the lights went out.
I think we’ll hand over to Ashwin himself at this point:
Born into a gang. Grew into a Springbok.
Maybe it’s worth remembering this man’s journey next time you feel the need to call him “unprofessional” or “ungrateful”, or try to belittle what he has managed to achieve thus far.
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