Diminishing hope and the meaning of Chester Williams (1970 – 2019)
Chester Williams represented everything that we’d hoped we would become when we set out on our democratic journey in 1994. He became the symbol of what could be achieved if everyone were given a chance, and the symbol of redemption for those who were part of a system that sought to suppress and subjugate, writes Pieter du Toit.
Chester Williams’ death – weeks after his fellow Rugby World Cup winning partner James Small – is a macabre end to a desperately dark week for South Africa.
After five days during which the country was vilified by the rest of Africa because of xenophobic violence and attacks, a week during which the assault on the country’s women made worldwide headlines and amid continuing political and economic paralysis and disappointment, Williams’ death is another blow for a nation crying out for hope and salvation.
His death means that another link to an era marked by hope and optimism, as opposed to despair and despondency, is severed.
Williams (49) represented everything that we’d hoped we would become when we set out on our democratic journey in 1994. He became the symbol of what could be achieved if everyone were given a chance, and the symbol of redemption for those who were part of a system that sought to suppress and subjugate.
As a member of the Rugby World Cup winning team of 1995, a team that in these days of division, populism and resentment seems to be from a vastly different time and place, Williams was so much more than a wing-threequarter wearing the number 11 on his back. He was a beachhead for reconciliation, for acceptance, for inclusivity, for non-racialism and nation-building.
And even though he was the only black player in the 21-man squad for the World Cup final, he was arguably the most important. Sure, scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen was a superstar and Small a rockstar, but Williams was what South Africa wanted to be. Young, fresh, quick and strong. And representative of a whole nation.
Thanks to the politics of cynicism and division many South Africans now scoff at former president Nelson Mandela’s rainbow project and reject the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a marketing gimmick, a mirage that all too quickly burnt away in the harsh reality of a post-apartheid society. But to those who were there, who believed in what could, and should be achieved, that project and the impact of that specific sporting event was real. The disappointment of later years mustn’t diminish that.
When Mandela, famously wearing Springbok captain Francois Pienaar’s no. 6 shirt, was introduced to the teams ahead of the final against the All Blacks on the field at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, he took a moment to speak to two players: Williams and Small. The one a coloured player who until shortly before the tournament couldn’t play for the national team, and the other an English-speaking rebel form Greenside who thumbed his nose at the Afrikaner rugby establishment.
"Williams was calm, effusive and soft, taking Mandela’s right hand into both of his and giving the head of state a giant grin"
Small, pumped up, warm blooded and emotional, was overcome, finding it difficult to hear what Mandela was saying and overawed by the occasion. But Williams was calm, effusive and soft, taking Mandela’s right hand into both of his and giving the head of state a giant grin. Weeks before, on the same field, he scored four tries against Western Samoa in the quarter finals of the tournament, a record at the time.
They represented a brave new world and “Chessie”, as he was known, was a folk hero.
After the tournament Williams became a talisman for every team he played for, with his status as world cup winner obviously enhancing his marketability and value.
Newlands, where he played on the wing for Western Province, was even colloqiually known as “Chesterfield”. Images of him, a black winger, running down the touchline in the blue and white hoops of Province on a Saturday afternoon with white schoolchildren in the background cheering him on became the staple of sportspages. Headlines, in thick, black newsprint, often screamed “Chessie, Chessie, Chessie!” as he broke another record.
Unfailingly polite and always wearing a smile, William was a favourite wherever he went, mobbed by fans of every hue and background.
When Mandela – and others – set out to reconstruct a society fractured by institutional racism and ingrained hate he needed partners. Many were reluctant, suspicious of the other and distrustful of motive. Pienaar’s team was one such partner. And Williams was a visible and shiny beacon of hope for both the opressed and the opressor. He broke barriers and winged his way into our hearts.
And now Williams is gone. Alongside other 1995 teammates Van der Westhuizen, Small and Ruben Kruger.
In a week where we lost so much, Williams’ death diminishes us even more.
Ave atque vale, Chester Williams, Western Province and Springbok winger, 1970 – 2019.