Nelson Mandela once said that a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. Human Rights Lawyer Peter Williams, who passed away on Wednesday 15 March, 2017, was blessed with that very rare combination. Williams, who succumbed to colon cancer, will be fittingly laid to rest on Human Rights Day.
After starting his legal career at the law firm of Human Rights lawyer and later Judge Essa Moosa, Williams soon became known for his capable, determined and successful representation of clients in cases ranging from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to high-profile cases aimed at eradicating racism. Before his illustrious career, Williams attended Belgravia High School in Athlone.
A year ahead of me in school, Williams was mature beyond his years and even though his smile came easy, his eyes remained serious. Understandably, as it was 1985 when the streets of Athlone were filled with burning barricades and protesting students.
As a member of the Student Representative Council, Williams was a natural leader who, together with other SRC members of Belgravia High and of other Athlone schools, called for school boycotts in support of students in 36 magisterial districts who were placed under a state of emergency and after the Cradock Four were killed by the security forces in June 1985.
Williams was a founding member of the Athlone Student Action Committee that coordinated student protests in the larger Athlone area. Through their organisation we marched to attend rallies at neighbouring schools, we symbolically buried apartheid, we attempted to march to Pollsmoor Prison to demand the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, we chanted and sang freedom songs, we toyi-toyied and barricaded streets, all in an attempt to render the apartheid state ungovernable.
We ducked rubber bullets and teargas canisters, ran from Casspirs and scaled fences; mothers and children were beaten with sjamboks as an impotent state unleashed its security forces. They arrested and detained Williams without trial at Victor Verster Prison for more than 160 days.
However, it was the event that is known as the Trojan Horse Massacre that made a lasting impact on Williams.
The clandestine shooting and killing of Shaun Magmoed, Johnathan Claasen and Michael Miranda by police who suddenly appeared from underneath boxes placed on a flatbed truck was the reason Williams returned to his alma mater thirty-one years later in order to honour the memory of these three young people.
During the commemoration event of the Trojan Horse Massacre on October 14, 2016, Williams called on the Fees Must Fall student leaders to learn from those who helped bring the apartheid government to its knees.
He urged them to formulate their objectives clearly, to convey a unified message in a disciplined manner and use to their advantage the fact that, unlike in the 1980s, stakeholders were willing to engage with them.
Williams' formidable voice will be sorely missed.