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Chester Williams, the only non-white member of South Africa’s 1995 World Cup-winning rugby team, recalls Nelson Mandela as being “such a humble and honest person”, who inspired his team to great feats of achievement.
Mandela used South Africa’s victory at their home World Cup 18 years ago as part of his campaign to promote political and racial harmony in his country.
Rugby had previously been regarded as a sport exclusively reserved for white Afrikaners, but Mandela sought to present the Springbok team as a unifying force for South Africa.
Perhaps the sport’s most widely viewed image remains the moment Mandela handed over the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar, the Boks captain, while wearing his green No 6 shirt after the final win over New Zealand in Johannesburg.
As the lone non-white player, Williams became a prominent figure in the promotion of the “Rainbow Nation” ideal.
“It was an incredible time and an honourable time for me as well,” Williams, 43.
“Working together with Nelson Mandela as he tried to unify the country was an incredible experience. It was an honour to be able to work together on things for a better South Africa.
“We all know what stature this man had so for him to walk into my changing room with a Springbok jersey on, that was enough incentive for us to go out on the field and show the world we are a united nation.”
The exposure he received when he was presented by South African rugby’s marketing team as the face of change was in stark contrast to Williams’ otherwise retiring demeanour.
The understated winger, who eventually won 27 caps for the Springboks, saw his image plastered on billboards in prime locations in major cities, as well as South African Airways planes.
All the while, he had to deal with the usual insecurities felt by players at major sporting events, as well as the intimation that he was a token selection based on skin colour. Williams scored four tries in the quarter-final against Western Samoa to dispel doubts about his merit, and he says it was Mandela’s words of motivation which inspired him.
“The way I coped with it was just to concentrate on what I had been selected in the team for,” said Williams, who was later a consultant on the Hollywood feature film Invictus, which told the story of Mandela and the 1995 World Cup.
“I was there to play rugby and I went about it in a way that gave me the chance to show my best on the field. I wanted to show the world that I wasn’t chosen as a token, but for my rugby, and that is what I did.
“I also had the support of Nelson, who called me to tell me I must do this for myself first, and then the black people in South Africa.
“He was nice to me, made me feel special and said motivational things – but he did that with the team as well. He did that to take the pressure off me.”
The Springboks of 1995 remain inextricably linked with Mandela. The former president, for example, later became the godfather to Jean Pienaar, one of the captain’s sons. While Williams, who currently coaches rugby in Romania, did not retain quite such a close relationship, he remains grateful for the time he spent with Mandela. “The first time I met him was at lunch at his house in the Western Cape,” Williams said.
“I was just sat there all by myself chatting to him about life and anything else. He was just a great and humble man to chat with.
“I called him ‘President’, because he was the president at the time – and I have never called him anything else since, like Madiba or Nelson. I have had dinner with him three times since, but since his condition started to deteriorate I [was not able to see him again].”
Ian Hawkey’s tribute, s8-9