Fame never went to Chester's head, Patricia de Lille tells memorial service
Late Springbok winger Chester Williams was heavily built and tough on the field, but on Wednesday he was remembered for his generosity and “infectious smile”.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup player’s former teammates, family and friends reminisced about his life at a moving service at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
The 49-year-old, who died of suspected heart attack on Friday, coached the institution’s rugby team and was hailed for taking it to the prestigious Varsity Cup.
Public works minister Patricia de Lille, a long-time friend of Williams, revealed that President Cyril Ramaphosa had declared Williams’ farewell at Newlands on Saturday an official funeral.
De Lille remembered the “lighter moments” she shared with Williams and his wife, Maria, as well as the worthy causes he supported.
“I am sad that the natural talent that Chester had was not fully realised in his own country,” said De Lille. “Chester had to go and coach in other countries, Romania and Uganda. I sat him down and said, ‘The kids are growing without you’. We were great friends and he loved making potjiekos. We never spoke politics. When his children were born, I was sad because [Nelson] Mandela saw them first!”
De Lille said she met Williams in 1991 and he quickly became part of her family.
“I think in his short 49 years, he has put in so much. I think he has run a good race – on the field and off the field. And what I like the most about him is his concern for his community and how he gave back,” she said.
The minister and former Cape Town mayor, who is a trustee of the Chester Williams Foundation, said the rugby star went out of his way to help drug addicts.
“He used to go into an informal settlement in Paarl, named after him, and find youngsters on drugs and say, ‘Come and play rugby with me’. And he gave many of them groceries through the Chester Williams Foundation," said De Lille.
"To me, that is the greatness of the man: the fame never got to his head.”
De Lille also spoke of Williams' love for PJ Powers’ music. “We used to travel together on holidays. We had many braais at his house and he loved PJ Powers’ music. We would play it all the time and would sing together,” she said.
“His kids grew up in front of me and I was also there when he dated Maria for the first time.
"We must celebrate his life. He belonged to all of us and we must say thank you to his family for sharing him with the nation. The public must come and join us at Newlands stadium on Saturday.”
Powers, whose song World in Union was the soundtrack of the Boks' 1995 triumph, said she had remained friends with most of the team “but particularly Chester and his wife Maria".
"It’s a horrible day today and I know we are celebrating Chester’s life,” she added.
Powers said Williams cared about his family just like he cared about rugby. “The focus is him and his family and I am here to honour him. Maria has requested two special songs. It’s something special,” she said.
She then belted her popular song Jabulani.
Mandla Gagayi, UWC’s head of sports, described Williams as "a simple guy with a big heart. He took interest in seeing everyone achieve."
Gagayi said Williams was goal driven and gave students bursaries and groceries through his foundation.
“In 2016, he informed us that in 2019 UWC would be playing in the Varsity Cup and it did. In his report this year, he told us that the UWC team would play in the Varsity Cup in 2021 and in 2022 UWC would win the Varsity Cup,” said Gagayi.
“He has left a good legacy and it is our responsibility to ensure that his legacy will go on.”
Maria Williams thanked Gagayi for giving her husband a job at UWC so that he could be with his family. “All his life he had to fight to get a position in South Africa. It is such a sad reality, but it is the reality," she said.
"Mandla, you allowed him to spend the rest of his life in South Africa and raise his children," she told Gagayi.
“Chester, although he did not have a position in South Africa, reinvented himself somehow and made a success of it. He never represented South Africa as a coach but he represented UWC, who are our family.”