Nelson Mandela

How a ball game played its part in changing a nation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


Related topics

In his 1994 inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela said: 'If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.'

This adage is one that seems to apply to Chester Williams on many levels. The Paarl-born player was the only non-white in South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup team. His presence in that winning team is seen as the moment the concept of the 'Rainbow Nation' became a reality.

Before the 1.74-metre winger stepped on the pitch and scored four tries in the quarter-final against Samoa, South Africa was a nation where the Springboks and rugby were seen as symbols of apartheid. 'Before that 1995 Rugby World Cup, non-white South Africans cheered for England, Australia or New Zealand when the Boks used to play', says Williams. 'It was only at the beginning of that World Cup that all of South Africa started to embrace rugby and the Boks.'

Williams will be sharing his views on the 1995 tournament and other rugby matters at a lunch open to all at the Hong Kong Football Club, where today's final will be shown live. He will be joined by three other stars of the past - Rico Gear, the former All Black winger now playing in Japan; former Wallaby Tony Daly; and Mike 'Iron' Teague, an ex-England international who is now a publican and property developer. The four rugby legends represent the four nations who have won the six previous World Cups.

The most famous of those victories was undoubtedly South Africa's success in 1995, which has been turned into a Clint Eastwood-directed movie, Invictus, starring Hollywood hot shots Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. Williams was played by McNeil Hendricks.

Of Pienaar's role as captain on that victorious team, Williams reveals: 'His strength was leadership. He knew how to motivate a team and he was very good at communication with both players and management'.

However, both Pienaar and Williams credit the impetus for the win to Mandela. 'It was destiny. He has an undeniable presence. He had an enormous effect on us. He often gave us motivational talks and knew all of our names. He united the team,' Williams says.

'When Mandela came into the changing room right before the final and asked us if he could wear the Boks jersey, the path of history was about to change. It's not just what Mandela says, but what he doesn't that makes the difference. He didn't say anything else in the changing room; he knew putting on the jersey was powerful enough.'

Mandela was guest of honour at Williams' wedding, and the two are inextricably linked by a friendship that started with rugby. 'He is more like a father to me. Our friendship will continue all of our lives. We still meet from time to time and we still discuss that World Cup win. We will never stop talking about it.'

In his 2002 autobiography, Chester, Williams wrote it was not always easy being the forerunner to racial change and not everyone was happy with the quota system.

'Nearly a decade on, I have no regrets about what I wrote. People often ask, 'Why didn't you speak up earlier and say it wasn't always as easy as people thought'? I had some mixed feelings at the time. In reality, at that time I never would have got the opportunities I did if I had spoken up earlier.

'What I wrote was just what I experienced. The changes in South Africa were fresh then, things hadn't settled. It was cathartic to write it, but I think the country has come forward since then. Rugby was the medium that brought the nation together. Now there is equal chance, you get through on performance. Your selection is based on merit.'

Despite having his face across a South African Airways aircraft during the Rugby World Cup campaign and being the third most recognisable face in South Africa after Mandela and Pienaar, there is no hint of hubris. Williams is remarkably devoid of chutzpah. 'I am in the business of entertainment; I like going out and meeting people all over the world. You can be recognisable without being arrogant. It has not been hard to live with this attention, but I want my seven-year-old twins, Chloe and Matthew to be their own people. I want them to make it in the world on their own merits and not live in my shadow.'

When he gave up playing 10 years ago, Williams went into coaching until 2003, when one of his final assignments was leading the South African side at the Hong Kong Sevens, where they lost in the Cup semi-finals to New Zealand.

'Because you love the game so much you give back. Coaching allows you to pass on what you've achieved and experienced. The World Cup this year will help grow rugby in Asia. I honestly do believe that there is enormous potential for growth in China and Hong Kong, and Japan's effort in the World Cup this year can't be entirely discounted.'

Williams, 41, hopes he will have the chance to one day coach his national side at the highest level. 'I would like to coach the Boks by the time I am 50. I figure that at this stage you can make it your last coaching job and it's the pinnacle.'

Williams has applied for the job twice and has ended up among the top three candidates, most recently as 2008 when the role was awarded to Peter de Villiers.

'To be selected for that Springboks role, you need to understand the many disciplines of coaching. These days teams have so many coaches - strength and conditioning coaches, fitness coaches, physios, psychologists, head coaches, tackling coaches. In reality, it takes you until you are about 50 to fully understand all the coaching disciplines.'

As Boks coach, Williams believes that he would not just benefit the team, but all of African rugby. Rugby transcends borders, and it could ultimately be his greatest legacy, as Africa's presence in the rugby world grows. 'As a coach, you have the responsibility to lead the rest of Africa, not just South Africa,' he says.

Of the final this afternoon, Williams smiles. 'My loyalty has got to be in the southern hemisphere.' As it was South Africa's time in 1995, today he feels victory should lie with the team he beat back then. Perhaps today he is recounting that 1995 victory and hoping that the All Blacks can break the hoodoo that has haunted them since their win at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. It is easy to imagine him suggesting the All Blacks take up Mandela's mantra: 'The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.'