At first glance, Ashwin Willemse shows little of his past. In his green and gold jersey, he looks like a Springbok rugby player. But closer inspection reveals clues to his troubled past — the tattoos on his forearms, the gold tooth.
It’s no secret that gangsterism played a part in his youth. To date his story has been depicted as a typical ‘ghetto kid makes good’ tale, but now in the first-ever genuinely in-depth public revelations Willemse makes about his troubled past a story far more profound than that is revealed.
In an interview with Mike Behr for SA Sports Illustrated, Willemse opens up like never before, speaking honestly about his stint as a gangster, his drug use and an attempted teenage suicide.
Willemse remembers his childhood as a painful, bitter experience. Painful because he grew up never knowing his biological father, bitter because he struggled to come to terms with being poor.
There are boys who cope without fathers. But there are also those who turn self-destructive. Willemse was one of the latter. In primary school he began filling his emotional void with petty theft: “I can’t remember the first thing I stole. All I know is I stole a lot of stuff.”
By the time Willemse hit high school, stealing was as second nature as playing rugby. By Grade 9 he was into housebreaking, and by the following year he was a gangster in the making.
“Gang life was always there,” he explains. “It was part and parcel of growing up. It was in my face the whole time. There was always the temptation of the good life. Eventually gangsters become role models because they have achieved something.”
By the age of 16, Willemse felt so bad about himself that he decided to kill himself. He admitted to SA Sports Illustrated that he’s never talked about his suicide attempt before.
“I wasn’t happy,” he reveals. “All that pain and hatred was killing me inside. All that wanting to fit in and feeling like an outsider built up and up until it broke me down.”
Going back to school and facing the shame and humiliation was one of Willemse’s toughest times. “The worst part of suicide was that I didn’t die. I don’t wish that on any man. It was the worst thing ever. That’s what cracked me up. That’s when I thought, fuck all this, I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
More angry and bitter than ever before, Willemse hooked up with a notorious Cape Flats gang and plunged headlong into a life of hard crime and drug addiction.
“I did a whole lot of shit,” he says, preferring to leave it up to the reader’s imagination rather than provide gratuitous, headline-grabbing detail.
“The worst shit you can think of, I’ve done it. I just went straight to business. If you think of something I would do it. If you think go there, I was first to go.”
But Willemse was leading a double life – that of a gangster and that of a budding rugby player. Craven Week 1999 had a huge impact on Willemse. “It was the first time I’d ever been in a provincial team,” he recalls. “And it was an eye-opener. I suddenly realised, fuck, you can make a living out of this and get self-respect and self-esteem. All those things I was getting as a gangster I could get as a rugby player.”
On the strength of Willemse’s Craven Week performances, then-Boland coach Rudy Joubert invited the promising 18-year-old to join his training camp at the end of 1999. An invitation to join the Boland Academy followed shortly afterwards and Willemse moved away from Caledon and its gangs into Jack Abrahams House in Wellington.
As promising as he was, though, a contract didn’t fall into Willemse’s lap. It took Chester Williams, in the SA Sevens set-up, and Jake White, at under-21 level, to help him become the player he is today — South Africa’s top performer at Rugby World Cup 2003.
Willemse’s amazing transformation is an inspiration to all and gives kudos to the South African rugby community. “As much as it is a sorely-needed demonstration of the value of transformation through rugby, it is a feel-good account of broader transformation in a human being,” says Rob Houwing, SA Sports Illustrated editor.
Willemse doesn’t want his lessons to go to waste. “I want to inspire young kids. I want to visit schools and let them know that no matter how bad they’re feeling there’s always hope… that when they’re feeling like there’s no way out they must sit still and think of it this way: that Ashwin Willemse, who is a Bok today, also went through these emotions. And look where he ended up.”