The man who broke the Bok colour? barrier

2014-03-23 14:01

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Chester Williams was the only black player in the 1995 Springbok squad that won the World Cup. He talks to Dan Retief about rainbows, race and rugby.

Not long after the dawn of South Africa’s ­democracy, a friendly face smiling down from giant billboards became almost as ­famous as Nelson Mandela’s.

Chester Williams was the only “player of colour” named to take part in the 1995 rugby World Cup. Calling someone a “player of colour” might sound quaint now, but back then it was the tolerable phrase, coined by coloured rugby administrators. It came into use before white South Africans became comfortable with simply saying “black”.

South African sport had until very recently held pariah-like status in the rest of world rugby.

But officials were so delighted to welcome the Springboks back into the fold that the tournament was awarded to the SA Rugby Union to present, just two years after a test against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in August 1992 signalled the end of isolation.

Williams would become the face of the squad in the hectic days leading up to the opening game against the reigning world champions Australia at Newlands, largely because he was the focus of the World Cup advertising campaign by SA Airways (SAA).

His face, accompanied by the slogan “The Waiting Is Over”, stared out from billboards alongside highways leading to South African airports.

At a “good luck” banquet for the team at the Sandton Sun, Williams’ celebrity was sealed when SAA’s marketing manager bid R150?000, to this day one of the highest prices for an item at a sports auction, for a painting of the little winger.

Unbeknown to all but those in the inner circle, Williams was in a desperate fight to recover from a hamstring injury so he would be able to compete in the tournament.

He had tweaked the muscle in the Boks’ only warm-up test, against Samoa at Ellis Park in April, and when the squad gathered to start preparing for the World Cup, he was still moving gingerly.

It was obviously vastly important for South African rugby to have Williams involved in the tournament but when, with just days to go, he was still unable to stretch into a full sprint, the tough decision was made to cut him from the squad and call for a replacement.

Williams was 24 that year.

He had been capped for the first time in November 1993 in a test against Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Twenty years on, as one would expect, he has vivid memories of the winter of 1995, of the talismanic influence of Nelson Mandela and, like other members of the team, of the mystic force that seemed to envelop them and sweep them along to that magical moment at Ellis Park on June 24 when his fragmented country truly became a rainbow nation.

Williams says he remembers it as though it were yesterday: Meeting Mandela for the first time while the team was at training in Cape Town; the pain of dropping out and being acutely mindful of the greater implications to the “One Team, One Country” message rugby wanted to portray.

“My own community [coloured people in the Paarl region with a long history of playing rugby] were very proud of me being in the squad and I had a sense of letting them down as I was aware that through me, black people found a way to relate to the team.”

But then came the miracle – a sequence of extraordinary events that resulted in Pieter Hendriks being cast out of the tournament, Williams returning for the quarterfinal against Samoa and marking the occasion by scoring a then record four tries.

Williams was nicknamed the “Black Pearl” of South African rugby and he recalls how overwhelmed he was when Mandela invited him to tea.

“I think Madiba realised the situation I had been placed in and his gesture was like having an arm around my ­shoulders.

We had a one-on-one meeting and I was completely in awe – here I was, a mere rugby player, sitting with this international icon.

“There is no doubt he had a special aura. Everyone felt it. I was very nervous, but Madiba relaxed me by talking about rugby, family, politics and his thoughts about the country. The lesson I took from our meeting was his belief in fairness and sincerity.”

Williams came to resent the quota system and in Chester – A Biography of Courage, written with Mark Keohane, he was at pains to emphasise that he was not a product of an enlightened system to promote transformation but that he had fought his way to the top in spite of the many racial barriers.

When he married his childhood sweetheart (a marriage that ended in divorce), Mandela was a guest of honour.

He determinedly fought to recover from serious knee injuries that would have ended the career of a less brave spirit.

He remarried, he coached the Cats in the Super Rugby competition and had a stint as coach of South Africa’s Sevens team.

Williams has recently returned from Romania, where for two years he coached the Timisoara club.

He is now on the lookout for another coaching job, his love of rugby proven by the fact that he is already back on the field as a mentor to the Under-20s at the Durbell club, an amalgamation of the former Durbanville and Bellville rugby clubs and based in Durbanville.

The club is not far from his home in Plattekloof, where he lives with his wife, Maria, and three children – Matthew, Chloe and Ryan.

There was a formal reunion of the Class of 95 in 2005, but these days he only runs into his former colleagues at games and rugby functions.

When the SABC broadcasts rugby, Williams and two former team-mates, Hennie le Roux and Pieter Hendriks, are sometimes called in as commentators.

Williams says South Africa is a much better place than it was 20 years ago.

“Our country has come a long way. We’ve presented wonderful international events such as the rugby World Cup, the Africa Cup of Nations and the Fifa World Cup.

“Doors have opened and people have been given job opportunities they previously would not have dreamed of and we’ve managed to travel overseas. But we can still do a lot more for the underprivileged. That is one of the biggest challenges,” he says.

“Every day, each one of us should strive to do a little more to make our country even better.”

In so many ways, Chester Williams did learn from Mandela. Whatever bitterness he felt about being a victim of an ­oppressive system, he bore with dignity and diplomacy while quietly bringing his understated, but no less steely, resolve to be the best to bear?…?and like Madiba, that brilliant smile was never far away.

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