When the history of the new South Africa is documented, Chester Williams will feature prominently as one of the figures whose ability in the sporting arena played a vital role in healing a society polarised by the injustices of the past; a description the former rugby player accepts with hesitation.
But there is no denying that he became one of the new faces of South African sport at a time when the nation was in search of heroes. “I don’t think I’m a hero, I’m just a boy who was fortunate to play rugby for his country at a time when things were very bad. Nelson Mandela is a hero, Chester Williams is just a former rugby player,” he said recently with a broad smile on his face, trying his best to come across as modest.
But more than most, he is well placed to know about the unifying power of sport in divided societies. Williams, a former Springbok who featured prominently in South Africa’s 1995 IRB Rugby World Cup victory, is an icon and a role model in South Africa. He played a significant role in that famous final when South Africa beat New Zealand’s favoured All Blacks 15-12 at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg in a game which brought joy to a South Africa which had just emerged from the apartheid era.
In Williams, the only player of colour in the team at that time, the majority of South Africans saw a hero they could relate to, they saw someone whose presence in the team inspired the nation to dream beyond cultural and racial terms. He became the symbol and a beloved son of the Rainbow Nation – a phrase often used to describe the diversity of the country in a new democratic South Africa.
“I have always been a team man, not a person who seeks individual glory," he said. "So maybe I wouldn’t really take credit when people say all those things about me, but of course I’m glad to have contributed, no matter how minute my contribution might have been, to the South Africa we strive to achieve. While other people saw me as a black player, I only saw myself as a rugby player, a sportsman whose selection was purely on hard work and merit."
When the conversation switched to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Williams said he was hoping the tournament would help in continuing to build South Africa’s society. For someone who epitomises a rags-to-riches story, he knows all about working hard to get ahead. “When I heard that we will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I said to myself: 'here is an opportunity for this country to unite, to really put its differences behind and be one nation.'
"When we won the Rugby World Cup, it was at a critical time in South Africa. I remember when Madiba [Nelson Mandela] walked in at Ellis Park on the day of the final, I heard people chanting ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson.' Now, I’m no politician, but it was amazing to see a predominantly white stadium chanting Madiba’s name, the acceptance was overwhelming,” he remembered.
Now Williams believes that the 2010 FIFA World Cup will help bring together the people and will create a society whereby South Africans will celebrate together and embrace each other. “This [World Cup], will make our youngsters dream, it will give our people something to aim at. That is Madiba’s dream and we have to all do our bit in bridging the gap that exits in our society,” he concluded.