There were tears, and there was laughter, but by the end Chester Williams’ memorial service at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Bellville campus on Wednesday had turned into a celebration.
The 1995 World Cup-winning wing died suddenly on Friday following a suspected heart attack after a gym session in Cape Town.
He was 49.
The main hall at the campus, where Williams served as head coach and director of rugby of the UWC first rugby side, was near-packed with friends, family and those who benefited from Williams’ contribution to the sport all paying tribute to a pioneer of South African rugby.
Minister Patricia de Lille, a close friend of Williams and his family, told stories of happier times.
She confirmed that Saturday’s funeral at Newlands had been made a Special Provincial Official Funeral by president Cyril Ramaphosa, and she said that her one regret was that Williams was not given the opportunity to contribute more to South African rugby through his coaching.
“We were great friends,” De Lille said.
“He used to love to make potjiekos and a braai at the same time. He would sit at the braai and play PJ Powers songs until I asked him if he could play something else. “He was like a son to me … we never spoke about politics.”
UWC’s Director of Sport, Mandla Gagayi, said Williams was his “brother”.
“Everybody knows Chester as a hero on the rugby field, but to us here he was a simple guy with a big heart,” an emotional Gagayi said.
“All he ever wanted was those around him to succeed.
“Personally, I have lost a friend and a brother. I want everyone at UWC sport to know that Chester has left a good legacy and that it is up to us to ensure that his legacy lives on.”
Williams’ wife, Maria, then took to the stage with her three children – Matthew, Chloe and Ryan – and asked the UWC rugby players to join her in what was one of the day’s most touching moments.
“I want you to know that Chester loved each and every one of you,” Maria told the young players, fighting back tears.
“He had such a passion for this University, and he worked day and night. UWC is our family.”
Another one of Williams’ close friends was iconic South African singer and songwriter PJ Powers.
“This one is for Chester Williams, the Springbok,” she said before performing the famed ‘World in Union’ as those in attendance mourned.
The mood quickly turned to celebration, however.
“This one is for Chester, the man,” said Powers, before belting out ‘Jabulani’ as the entire hall rose as one to sing along and celebrate the life of a man who was taken to soon.
Williams’ funeral will start at 12:00 at Newlands on Saturday.