Coline Williams was born on 30 May 1967 and grew up in Bonteheuwel, a township in the Western Cape, South Africa. The eldest of three siblings, Coline, her brother Ashley and the last born, Selina, were raised in a political conscious household—their grandmother encouraging their political awareness. [1]

Williams was a drama student at the Joseph Stone Institution in Athlone, Cape Town, and also worked part-time at a nightclub to earn extra money. She is described by her relatives and friends as being a feisty young woman, responsible, disciplined and very serious about her involvement in the liberation struggle. [2]

Williams is believed to have been radicalised during the school boycotts of 1985 in the Western Cape. With schools and learning institutions closed, students sought to educate themselves and work towards overthrowing the racist and oppressive apartheid regime.

Williams was involved in student politics, becoming a student coordinator for the Cape Youth Congress. In 1986, she was detained at Pollsmoor Prison for eleven months and interrogated by Officer Jan Louw.

Upon release from prison, her sister, Selina, in her testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), recalled her being very withdrawn, unwilling to disclose many details about her experience: ‘She just said she just want[ed] to go on with her life, she just want[ed] to leave it there and carry on. And - but she never talked to us as family members about it.’ [3] Williams joined uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1988 and joined the Ashley Kriel Detachment.

The evening of the 22 July 1989, the day before her death, Williams is remembered going from house-to-house of the parents of children who were in exile, imprisoned or in hiding, and gave each of them a rose. This action represents Williams’ compassion and empathy, and humanises a life remembered by the nation for its political activism and as a MK operative. Williams also kept one rose in their family home.

Her mother, Wilhelmina Williams, recalls Coline’s reaction upon seeing the rose wither. She remembers Coline saying: ‘Ag, daar gaan my roos ook alweer dood.’ Roughly translated as: ‘There my rose is dying already.’ With the benefit of hindsight, these words are a metaphor and a foreshadowing of Coline’s actual death. The hours leading up to her death on 23 July 1989 is remembered fondly by her sister, as they sat together outside the family home in Bonteheuwel talking and enjoying one another's company.

Later that day, Williams embarked on her mission with fellow MK operative, Robert Waterwitch. Together they sought to plant a bomb at Athlone Magistrate’s Court. Their mission was part of a broader plan to plant limpet mines at various locations across the Peninsula as an anti-election campaign. Some of the other targeted areas were Mitchell’s Plain police station, and magistrate’s courts in Somerset West and Bellville. Security forces intervened before the bomb at Bellville could detonate. However, the same cannot be said for the bomb Williams and Waterwitch were expected to plant. Although an issue of contention, it is believed that their bomb was faulty and detonated prematurely, killing the two MK operatives. [4]

Having to identify William’s body at the mortuary, her sister remembers seeing inconsistencies in the injuries visible on the corpse--injuries not particularly consistent with that incurred by a bomb. Additionally, upon receiving the personal belongings found with the bodies, Selina noticed that the sanitary towels she had given Williams were completely undamaged despite the bag Coline held them in being completely destroyed.

One post mortem report was unable to conclusively determine that she had indeed succumbed to injuries obtained by the bomb blast, as the narrative  had been told by the police and repeated at the TRC hearings. Many believe that the two MK operatives were killed by the police before the bomb detonated—the bomb only a subversion of the truth. A joint funeral was held for Williams and  Waterwitch. However, as mourners returned from the gravesite, violence erupted as police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, as the funeral was a highly political event.

On 16 December 2005, a life-sized memorial sculpture was unveiled opposite Athlone Magistrate’s Court. The sculpture was commissioned by the City of Cape Town which was then under the administration of the ANC. [5] The sculpture depicts Coline Williams and Robert Waterwitch as though on their mission.  Williams is also commemorated in song. Emile YX’s ‘Roar Young Lions Roar - C.A.R.A.’ honours the sacrifice of deceased Cape Town struggle heroes Anton Fransch, Ashley Kriel, Coline Williams and Robert Waterwitch.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has since undertaken to request further investigations into the deaths of Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwitch. 

End notes

[1] Tammy Peterson, “'A grave injustice' – 30 years after MK operatives die in Cape Town bombing, loved ones want inquest reopened”, News 24, 24 July 2019. https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/a-grave-injustice-30-years-after-mk-operatives-die-in-cape-town-bombing-loved-ones-want-inquest-reopened-20190724 accessed on 30 July 2019.

[2] ‘A tribute to Robbie & Coline,’ YouTube Video, 9:59, ‘Oryx Media, 28 July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QBcnuLrhZU.

[3]Truth and Reconciliation Commission UWC Hearing- Day 3 - Wednesday, 7 August 1996, http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/hrvtrans/helder/ct00306.htm.

[4] Truth and Reconciliation Final Report, Volume 3, Chapter 5, Subsection 38,  http://sabctrc.saha.org.za/reports/volume3/chapter5/subsection38.htm.

[5] Marianne Thamm, ‘The heroes ANC forgot to remember: Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams, 25 year later,’ Daily Maverick, 28 July 2014.  https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-07-28-the-heroes-anc-forgot-to-remember-robbie-waterwitch-and-coline-williams-25-years-later/ accessed on 20 August 2019.

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