Rugby Union: Cape crusader's dream: Chris Rea in Pretoria meets a man whose vision has been vindicated

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The Independent Online
FOR Abe Williams, yesterday's game at Loftus Versfeld was the fulfilment of a long cherished dream. The dream was based on the idea that political change in South Africa could best be effected by social change and that the catalyst would be rugby. It was not a view which found favour with those who believed in influencing opinion against the iniquitous regime of apartheid through isolation, not contact. No normal sport in an abnormal society was their message to the world.

Williams has suffered criticism and, in some quarters, vilification for his stance, but he has never flinched from his belief that one day he would be proved right. His crusade began some 30 years ago when, as player, coach and general factotum of Saldanha, a club in the Western Cape, he used the club to foster and encourage interests beyond rugby. 'It became a kind of social centre for the coloured community', Williams said. 'A place where members could get advice on a whole range of topics from job training to life insurance. Rugby opens so many doors, breaks down so many barriers.'

In those early days, as Secretary of the South African Rugby Federation, the governing body for Cape coloureds, Williams worked patiently but with determination from within a system which initially paid only lip service to his presence. Tokenism was all that mattered to the white-ruled South African Rugby Board. Williams was considered, on both sides of the divide, to be one of the gestures towards integration. But one day, perhaps, he would be in a position of influence.

One of his first tasks was to assist with the organisation of the England tour to South Africa in 1972. So important did he consider it that he took three months' unpaid leave from his job as a schoolteacher. 'We owe England an everlasting debt of gratitude for keeping the channels open through rugby.' John Pullin's team were the first touring side to play the Proteas, a representative team of coloured players. 'Believe me, that tour did more than anything else to help in the process of racial integration.' But Williams permits himself a wry smile at the memory of a stadium where there was no mixed seating and where music was banned at the after- match function lest the coloured women began dancing with the white players.

If any event convinced Williams that his way was the right one, it was the international conference on schools and youth rugby organised by the Rugby Football Union in 1973 at Rugby School. 'That was where I discovered my freedom. There I was in the midst of some of the great figures in the world game. I talked, I ate, I drank, I lived with them as an equal. And I was in the very place where it all began. It was an incredibly liberating experience, one which only rugby could have given me.'

Williams returned with a vision of what he wanted for South African rugby. Change was slow, at times imperceptible. There were frustrations and setbacks, but there were rewards. As when Errol Tobias became the first coloured player to represent the Springboks. And again when Chester Williams, who played against England yesterday, broke into international rugby.

Another barricade, mixed rugby in the schools, on which the hardline supporters of apartheid had made their last but most ferocious stand, was dismantled. Coloured and black teams began successfully competing in the Craven schools festival, and all the time Williams was advocating contact with the sporting world, not excommunication from it. As assistant manager of the ill-starred Springboks tour to New Zealand in 1981, he still managed to deliver his message of change. His statesmanship did not go unnoticed, even on Robben Island. 'When I met Nelson Mandela for the first time, he knew all about me. He said to me, 'You have done a fantastic job for rugby'.'

Williams' ambassadorship in rugby earned him the post as Minister for Sport in the year and a half preceding the elections. He is now the Minister for Welfare and Population Development, and in common with the majority of South Africans shares in the feeling of glowing optimism for the country's future. 'The inauguration of President Mandela was a wonderful occasion, a most uplifting experience. But after that we needed something away from politics as a focus for our new unity. The England rugby tour has provided that.'

Williams recognises that there is still much to be done, and that change will not be instantaneous. But changes in the social structure must mean increased opportunities for all classes, creeds and colours. 'It is not just a matter of putting more money into rugby. We must also put more effort into it. We want to increase the pace of change.' He intends to have talks with Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, regarding an exchange system for young black and coloured players in South Afica with emerging players in England.