Chester Williams: Madiba and Me

By admin
14 December 2013

He remembers the day as if it were yesterday: in front of a packed Ellis Park Stadium Nelson Mandela leant forward and whispered something in his ear.

He remembers the day as if it were yesterday: in front of a packed Ellis Park Stadium Nelson Mandela leant forward and whispered something in his ear. “I’m proud of you; go make the rest of South Africa proud too,” South Africa’s then president whispered in the ear of Chester Williams, the Springboks’ star wing.

'We spoke a lot about his life and career and he told me about his time on Robben Island.'

It was Saturday 24 June 1995, the day of the Rugby World Cup final. Chester did what Madiba had told him to and helped the Boks make rugby history by winning the World Cup after years of isolation.

Chester, then in his early 20s, was the only black player in the team and was known as their “Black Pearl”.

“Only much later did I realise what a big task was resting on my shoulders,” Chester (42) says from Romania, where he’s a club coach.

News of Madiba’s critical condition in hospital in Pretoria has of course reached him – and brought back memories of the bond he and Madiba had formed over the years.

“I think when we began to film Invictus I realised for the first time what had happened behind the scenes,” Chester says, referring to the Hollywood movie about how Mandela and Bok captain Francois Pienaar used 1995’s World Cup to bring the country closer together.

When Madiba encouraged Chester to make South Africa proud before that historic match the player didn’t yet realise what an important role he’d take in helping unify the nation.

This remains among his finest memories of a remarkable friendship.

Chester and Madiba had met for the first time the previous year. “It was after our New Zealand tour. I was at home in Paarl when I received a call from Zelda la Grange (Madiba’s personal assistant). She invited me to dine with Madiba at Tuynhuys. I thought she was joking.”

That was the beginning of a special relationship between Madiba and the young rugby star, at the time the only black Springbok.

“Madiba never said outright why he’d invited me to his house but looking back I know he was aware of the role I could play as a member of the World Cup team.

“He congratulated me on being selected for the Springbok team and also for being able to stay part of the squad because that was no mean feat.

“We spoke a lot about his life and career and he told me about his time on Robben Island.”

Over a meal of lamb chops Madiba shared a few life lessons with Chester. “He said it was important to always be yourself and that you should never change your personality or you’ll never be a happy.

“It was a huge honour sitting next to him on the couch in the Tuynhuys lounge and having a chat. Afterwards I was more motivated than ever to retain my place in the team. I knew I had a responsibility towards my country and its people to make a success of my rugby career.”

Madiba remained involved with the Springboks and even attended a practice session one day. But it was only when he walked onto the field before that all-important match wearing the no 6 Bok jersey that all South Africans knew he was firmly behind the Springboks.

Chester still remembers how the stands erupted into wild cheers when Madiba walked onto the field.

Earlier he’d visited the Springboks in the dressing room to wish them luck. Chester remembers what he said to this day: I and the entire South Africa are behind you. We believe in you and know you can win.

“Some of the guys and I said afterwards that even if he’d just come into the dressing room and not said a word it would’ve given us the will to win. We were so motivated and energised.”

The Boks won the match against the All Blacks in extra time when Joel Stransky’s drop goal went sailing over the cross bar. The score was 15-12.

“It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life and will be recorded in the annals of history. It was the first World Cup in which South Africa was involved. We were the host country, we won and it unified the nation.

“Everyone was so happy. White, black, everyone.

“That day we all became legends and after the match things were so much better in the country.”

Madiba didn’t forget the Boks’ “Black Pearl’’ and in 2005 invited him along with his wife, Maria, and their children – Ryan and twins, Matthew and Chloe – to his home in Houghton, Johannesburg. Francois and soccer star Lucas Radebe were also there that day.

“The twins were still very young,” says Chester, “But Ryan chatted very nicely with Madiba and we took beautiful pictures.”

Maria recalls that when she walked into the house she felt as if she was entering a church. “It’s definitely been the highlight of my life,” she says. “He’s so humble and yet when you meet him you know he’s the greatest man in the world.”

“And he had so much empathy with children.”

Madiba is a “very charming man”, Maria says. “I’m very surprised he doesn’t have eight wives,” she adds laughing.

The children also still remember their visit, Chester says. “We often talk about Madiba and the important role he’s played in the country. The twins have even done an oral on him and took some of the photographs to school with them. Their friends couldn’t believe how they were hanging onto him.”

After the release of the movie Invictus Chester received lots of inquiries from international media. “European, French, Italian and American media all contacted me. They wanted to know about how I’d experienced life here before, during and after the World Cup tournament.

“I was honest about it. I told them how during apartheid we had to travel in separate busses and trains and how we were never allowed to attend functions after matches.”

Things changed radically after 1995 and he later became very friendly with his team mates, Chester says. “We enjoyed hanging out and if someone had made a racist remark my teammates would’ve defended me.”

The legendary World Cup tournament was a turning point, Chester says. “There’s room for improvement but South Africa is a better country now.”

He doesn’t believe the situation in the country will deteriorate when Mandela is no longer around. “I think the country will be in mourning for a long time. It’s the man who made South Africa what it is. But we must bear in mind that he’s no longer the president and that we have many other strong leaders.”

Maria believes Chester best summed up his relationship with Madiba in a message he came up with when the City of Cape Town was collecting palm prints from well-known personalities. They were later auctioned in aid of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

At the time Chester wrote: “To the world you are Madiba, but to me you are the world.”

- Marelize Potgieter

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