Hundreds of family members and friends gathered, on Friday March 17, to pay their last respects to human rights lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Peter Williams, who succumbed to cancer last week.
“Peter lived in Pinelands, but we all knew Peter came from Kewtown because he spoke proudly about being born here,” said Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown. And so it was apt that Friday night’s memorial was held in Kewtown, at the AFM Church, where
Mr Williams became a born-again Christian, his religion and spirituality playing a central role in his life.
Mr Williams, a former secretary of the Western Cape legislature, cut his political teeth as a member of the Kewtown Youth Movement, later becoming a respected student activist and leader at Belgravia High – and in the broader Athlone community.
Many years later, Mr Williams represented the victims of the bombing of the Athlone Early Learning Centre, by the Civil Co-operation Bureau, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Last year, he took on former estate agent Penny Sparrow at the Equality Court. She was forced to pay R150 000 to the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation after her racist tirade on Facebook against black beachgoers in Durban.
At Friday night’s memorial service, also attended by dignitaries such as Judge Siraj Desai, Deputy Minister of Human Settlements Zou Kota-Fredericks, Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mcebisi Skwatsha, delivered a moving tribute to his “friend and comrade” of more than 30 years.
“It was people like Peter who could proudly wear the mantle of lion,” he said.
“He was born in vinegar times and fed lemons… but he was prepared to be the midwife of a bright future for South Africa.
“The poor people of Bonteheuwel, Athlone, Crossroads and KTC have lost a champion for human rights.”
And to Mr Williams’s mother, Gladys, he said: “Your son was a warrior for peace.”
During what was largely a celebration of Mr Williams’s life, it was Mr Skwatsha’s emotional recollection of his last moments with his friend, that brought tears to many an eye.
In his tribute, Mr Williams’s younger brother, Denzil, recalled living in the shadow of an astute and respected student leader, often acting as messenger between his brother and the student representative council (SRC) leaders at Spes Bona, where he, Denzil, completed his high schooling.
“We were so proud of Peter,” he said, “because we knew where he came from. Mama was a domestic worker, and he was a jewel in the crown of mama.”
Also among the speakers was Nathan Erasmus, who served on the Kewtown Youth Movement with Mr Williams. And as images of a young Mr Williams were displayed on a screen behind him, he called the other members of the youth movement to join him on the stage.
“Peter joined the youth movement at a very young age,” he said. “He was always composed… a thinker and an intellectual.
“He was like pieces of a puzzle. And we each owned a piece,” he added.
Ms Brown, too, referred to Mr Williams’s selfless nature, telling his wife, Annastasia: “We are your family. You can call on us. We often called on Peter and gave him nothing in return.”
In recent times, Mr Williams had been determined to highlight the role of Athlone youth in the anti-apartheid struggle, and was instrumental in organising a commemoration of the Trojan Horse Massacre in which three youth were killed by apartheid police on October 15, 1985 (“Bellies rings in 60 years,” Athlone News, October 12 2016).
At last year’s commemoration – and also at Mr Williams’s side during the student protests – was UWC academic Professor Premesh Lalu. In his tribute to his friend, on Friday night, he said: “I cannot tell you how much I loved Peter. He taught us to love freedom. He was an optimist in the face of despair. Peter believed in being more than what anyone said you could be.”
Referring to his involvement in last year’s Trojan Horse Massacre memorial, he added: “Peter asked us to reconstitute ourselves as a community that had seen a future beyond apartheid. And I will be sure to take forward every dream we had together.”
Mr Williams is survived by his wife, Annastasia, and children, Kenan, Mikhail and Nicole.
His funeral was held yesterday, Tuesday March 21, at the Desire of All Nations Church in Ottery.