Chester Williams and the making of modern South African rugby

Williams, the only black South African player in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, was a complex figure in complex times. He deserves to be remembered as such.

Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. South Africa vs. Fiji kick-off. Image credit Stewart Baird via Flickr (CC).

It was at the Oppikoppi Music Festival in 1997 and Koos Kombuis was finishing up his set with a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” He was basically riffing, adding a few lines for a proudly South African audience.

“No Woman, No Cry. No boerewors, no braai.”

And then:

“No Woman, No Cry. No Chester, No Try.”

The wordplay was nonsense in the context of the song, but it was fun nonsense, and the crowd ate it up.

The reference, of course, was to Chester Williams, the fine Springbok wing who had become in many ways the symbol of the aspirations of the “New South Africa,” the face of a South African national rugby team that, while still virtually all-white, in a sport that nationwide was still overwhelmingly white and fraught with racism, aspired to something different. In the lead-up to the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Williams had become the face of the national side, an iconography that held up even when his hamstring didn’t, keeping him out of much of the competition. he made it back for the knockout rounds, scoring an epic four tries in the quarterfinals against Western Samoa. He was part of the defensive heroics in the epic finals against New Zealand’s All Blacks, a dramatic, albeit try-free affair that saw the Springboks win in extra time to take the World Cup and seal their places as the symbolic embodiment of the Rainbow Nation of God.

Chester Williams died on September 6th. He was shockingly young, just 49 years old, and likely succumbed to a heart attack.

More than a mascot

And yet Chester Williams was more than just the smiling face that the South African rugby hierarchy could cynically slap on the side of buses and planes and billboards, though smile he did. Nelson Mandela recognized the importance of Williams to the 1995 team and Williams was happy to play along, swept up as so many millions of South Africans were in a feel-good narrative at a time when South Africa was very much about feel-good narratives.

First off, Williams was a hell of a rugby player. He was not a prototypical wing, but there was an element to his style that was reminiscent of what was long said of Muhammad Ali—he was bigger than those who were faster than he was, and he was faster than those who were bigger. He ended his career with 14 tries in Springbok test matches, a number that may not seem like a lot from the vantage point of the professional era (where elite players play at minimum three or four times as many test matches per year), but that put him near the top of the All-Time Springbok try scoring list when he retired in 2000 (he made his Springbok debut in 1993). Williams served as one of the bridges between the amateur and professional eras (the latter kicked in after the 1995 World Cup), from an era when international competition was still somewhat rare to one when it was ubiquitous. Prior to 1995 it would have been nearly unimaginable for a Springbok to earn 100 caps for his country (Williams earned 27; No Springbok who made his test debut in the green and gold before 1993 earned as many as 40 caps). Williams was a truly great player whose greatness cannot be captured in pure numbers given the rapidly changing nature of world-class rugby in the last quarter century. But in the years since his retirement, Williams has come to be seen as little more than a smiling face, a mascot for the 1995 team. Yet, Williams was so much more complicated than that.

Race, Chester, and the Boks

Despite the Rainbow Nation gauziness that surrounds the 1995 Boks and perhaps especially Williams, there is an important and complex story beyond the feel-good narrative. For one thing, Williams was only the third black Springbok. The first was Errol Tobias, the halfback and center who first played against Ireland in May 1981 and was picked for the infamous 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. His pioneering experience caught him grief from all sides—from whites who never believed he belonged in the Springbok side to begin with, and among anti-apartheid sports activists who saw him as an Uncle Tom.

The second black Springbok was Avril Williams who, like Tobias, was a star from South Africa’s flourishing Western Cape coloured rugby tradition. While invisible to the white South African rugby power structure, it gave the lie to the hoary old tale that “blacks aren’t rugby people,” an idea that many white South Africans continue to peddle in one way or another. Avril Williams earned two caps, both against England in 1984. His nephew, Chester, would be the third black Springbok when he debuted in 1993.

One of the issues facing these earliest black Springboks was the division within black rugby in South Africa. Tobias and Williams came from the South African Rugby Federation, a coloured rugby organization that while hardly pro-apartheid was willing to work within the apartheid structures to develop rugby within the coloured community. They faced resistance and criticism from the South African Rugby Union (SARU), a charter member of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), which ardently opposed apartheid sport and those who accommodated its racist structures. SARU included SARF among the collaborators with apartheid. Thus when Tobias debuted for the Springboks, far from being celebrated across black rugby circles, he was met with excoriation amongst many who saw him as a sellout.

In Mark Keohane’s 2002 authorized biography of Williams, Chester: A Biography of Courage, Williams admits that he was “a black player who knew very little about the history of the game among the black rugby-playing populations.” He knew “the basic things—that there were a variety of different unions, that not everyone played under the same banner, and that there was as much division within black rugby as there was between black and white rugby. It is a fact of our rugby history and we can’t shy away from it.”

Not only did Williams make sure to educate himself about this history, he soon received a primer through his lived experience.

Rainbow Nation idealism aside, race was always so omnipresent around Williams’ career that it was not subtext—it was text. He was the third Black Springbok, yes, but he was the first of the post-apartheid era, the first since the Springboks had been welcomed back into the world rugby fold in 1992. That process itself was, in the minds of most politically aware observers, seriously flawed. The Boks return was absurdly premature, as racism in the sport’s structures and throughout South African stadiums ran rampant. Nonetheless, Nelson Mandela shrewdly, if perhaps naively, saw sport, and especially rugby, as a tool of nation building and thus of transformation. Thus, Williams’ emergence was a godsend for Mandela, for white South Africa’s rugby barons, and for those who wanted the sort of easy victories that Amilcar Cabral warned us about.

Williams was not really into easy victories. He was well aware of the racial dynamics when he played, and in fact while he proudly identified as coloured, he was not comfortable as the “black” face of Springbok rugby. Despite being portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus as the heroic face of the Boks (by two-cap Springbok and Williams contemporary McNeil Hendricks, who scored a try against Wales in 1998) for joyous township denizens, the reality was more complicated. In the Xhosa-speaking townships that the Boks did visit, Williams was not necessarily the hero. One of their many virtues is that children don’t always see race like adults do, and Mark Andrews, the giant lock of the mid-1990s Springboks, could speak Xhosa. That, along with his size and his avuncular nature, meant that many of the children were drawn to Andrews more than to the far more reserved Williams.

Furthermore, for all of the romanticized depictions of the 1995 team, things were not always as smooth as depicted. In Chester, Williams alleges racism within the 1995 squad and indicates a level of resentment about being used basically as window dressing for larger political purposes. Among those he would accuse of racism were popular fellow wing, but undoubted bad-boy, James Small who died of a heart attack in a strip club in July. Since the biography’s appearance Williams has modified his accusations multiple times—asserting that he did not face racism within the Springbok ranks but rather during the domestic Currie Cup competition; at other times he has denied them entirely, implying that Keohane (long known in South African journalism, and especially rugby circles, for his politically aware commentary and propensity to push the envelope to get a story) believed that Williams’ tale needed a boost. In the end, he simply refused to talk about the allegations against Small. Yet race, and especially racism in South African rugby circles is a pervasive theme in Chester. And so, even if the allegations against Small are overstated, there are plenty of other stories to validate that Williams faced an uphill climb for acceptance throughout his career.

Beyond the sideshow of these nearly two-decade-long accusations, it is quite clear that Williams both faced and interpreted racism throughout his career and beyond. It would have been shocking had he not. For despite the smooth and clean Rainbow Nation narrative, South African rugby, like the country within which it operates, is not one of smooth, clean narratives. Williams went on to become a coach, seeing some successes and some failures as is characteristic of that unforgiving profession. With the passage of time Williams was able to dine on the glories of 1995, as has any Springbok who walks into a pub or café in any city, town, or dorpie in South Africa.

Williams’ death has revived these Rainbow Nation narratives. Satellite channel SuperSport, which dominates sports broadcasting in South Africa, along with the rest of South Africa’s media landscape, sporting and beyond (and Williams has long transcended sport precisely because of these narratives), has and will continue to play up narratives of reconciliation and flag waving. And that is part of the story. But it is not the only part of the story, or even the most important part. Williams was a complex figure in complex times. He deserves to be remembered as such.

Postscript: The tragedy of the class of 1995

A sad footnote to all of this is the air of tragedy that increasingly seems to linger over the 1995 Springboks, the vast majority of whom are in their late 40s and 50s—still the prime of life. Williams death at 49 is not a singular tragedy, rather it is just the latest to hit that legendary group. Kitch Christie, the 1995 coach, passed away in 1998. He was only 58. Flank Ruben Kruger succumbed after a long fight against brain cancer in 2010. He was 39. Joost van der Westhuizen, one of the most beloved of all Springboks despite the occasional run-in with the tabloids, passed away after a courageous public struggle with ALS in 2017. He was 45. And James Small was 50 when he died in July.

As Williams acknowledges in Chester, “Winning the World Cup in 1995 may have unified the nation for a week. It did not change my standing within South African rugby. I was a black rugby player and that somehow separated me from the squad.” A few years later, in discussing his own ambitions at the beginning of his coaching career (and some of the fallout from the more explosive assertions he made in Chester), Williams asserted, “I’ve made no secret of the fact I want to coach the Springboks one day… What I hope, if that happens, is that nobody even notices how many black players are in my team. That would be the most important day in South African rugby.”

South African rugby has not yet achieved that goal. But when Siya Kolisi, the first black Springbok captain, leads his charges onto the pitch against the All Blacks in Yokohama City on the 21st of September the Springboks will be closer than ever. That is not enough, but Chester Williams is one of the figures who deserves credit for them being as close as they are, and that’s not nothing.

Further Reading

After the World Cup is gone

The book, “Africa’s World Cup,” is a valuable source for thinking more deeply about the meanings and legacies of the 2010 edition of the competition hosted in South Africa.