Willie Bester was born on the 29th of February 1956 in the small farming town of Montagu two hours north of Cape Town, where he also grew up. He was the illegitimate son of a Xhosa-speaking migrant labourer from the Eastern Cape and a "Cape Coloured" mother. Because his parents were defined as a mixed race couple, Bester was classified as "Other coloured." This enabled him to keep his mother's Afrikaans surname and privileges, which were better than those of a black man. His three younger brothers and three younger sisters were all born after his parents were married, and were classified as black and registered under the name of their father, Vakele. They did not have the privileges Bester did.
The family rented land from other 'coloureds' and set up shacks in their back yards in the 'coloured' township outside of Montagu throughout Bester's childhood. This was because of the Apartheid law which forbid mixed race families from buying houses in most areas in Montagu, and because usually the father, as a migrant labourer, was forced to live in single-sex hostels in large compounds. The only way the family could be together was to live in this way.
Bester's father was a fencer, who did piece-work at local fruit and wine farmers. His mother sold liquor to other farm workers from their back yard in the township. In 1966, the Group Areas Act required black families to move out of the towns into designated townships. There they lived in a 'scheme' house, which was part of a state-run, low income housing scheme. Bester's mother was harassed by the police for carrying three bottles of wine in the street, and because the police and municipality of Montagu worked so closely together, in 1969 the family lost their house and once again had to become tenants.
Bester's childhood memories are filled with the images of abuse and disrespect from the white population of Montague. There were strict laws governing the activities of 'coloureds', which the people had to abide by, or they would be severely punished. For example, 'coloured' people could only go into the town for a specific reason, such as to buy something. They were told "no loitering" - this meant they could not simply go and enjoy the scenery in a recreational park as white people could.
Bester was interested in creating artistically from an early age. As a young boy he made toys to sell to the neighbourhood children, and his inventiveness led to details in design such as wire cars with headlights made from candles and tin-can reflectors. At school, Bester's interest in painting was encouraged by one of his teachers and he won an interschool art competition. However, he could not develop his creative talent as a result of the effect Apartheid had on his family and early life.
As a child, Bester did not know of life outside Montagu. He believed that the oppression was simply the way things were. However, he felt something was very wrong with the situation. At a young age he began mobilizing himself, and he rebelled against the attitude of white people. He did not want to call white men "Boss" just because they had a different skin colour to his. He did not believe in giving a title of respect to someone purely for this reason.
To satisfy the police, Bester would find work under white men, but as soon as they began demanding that he call them "Boss" he would walk out, because he knew he could support himself, and did not need their money. Consequently, he did not keep the same job for longer than one month.
Apartheid was centred around control. In Montagu, the black people were contained in hostels and townships out of the town. However, there was no such structure for 'coloured' people. In an attempt to control the young 'coloured' population of Montagu, the police formed the Eersterivier Cadet Rehabilitation Centre outside of the town. 'Coloured' young men were drafted here for one year if it was found that they had not worked for a white man for more than three months at a time. The centre wanted to bring the 'coloureds' "into line" by teaching them how to work for white people. It was as if the young men were being drafted into the army because people came from all over South Africa - there were one thousand people there during Bester's year. The men would have to do semi-military training, and were subjected to many different forms of propaganda, specifically about Angola at that time. Luckily, being drafted to the Centre did not give Bester a criminal record, and he could still find work afterwards.
After this ordeal, Bester decided to leave Montagu and went to Cape Town. Here he entered the employ of Frikkie Freeman, a dental technician, where he earned about R25 a week ($1,00 is roughly equivalent to R6,00). He learnt quickly, and by the time he resigned fifteen years later in 1990, he was earning R1440 per month.
While growing up, there had been little resistance to the political situation in Montague and other rural districts in the Cape. However, in 1976 the Soweto Uprising occurred, and during the 1980s there was still more restiveness. In 1988 Bester attended the Community Arts Project in Cape Town part-time, where he was excited by the works fellow students were making that attacked the Apartheid government. The environment inspired him to start creating artworks that protested the inequities of the Group Areas act and the racial composition of the Apartheid voters' roll, where the votes of people of different races had unequal values, enabling the white minority (with the most votes) to remain in power.
Before and during this time Bester was also often commissioned to paint works for people's houses, both in Cape Town and Montagu, often simply to complement the chosen colour theme and fill an open wall in a new house. However, at the end of such commissions there was always the issue of whether or not the customer is pleased with the result, and often Bester did not receive the right payment. This type of work was not making Bester happy, and the year at the Community Arts Project showed him a new way of creating art that was much more appealing to him. He did not even want to sell his works, since the works were for him.
Presently, Bester lives in Kuilsrivier just outside of Cape Town. He has been married since 1981 and has three children. He works from home, starting at 8am and breaking for meals, and then between 5 and 7, whereupon he continues working sometimes as late as 11pm. He creates multi-media collages that reflect the true vibrancy and life of the townships that he knows so well. He also creates works that are specifically about a certain event, such as the death of Chris Hani, a past leader of the Communist Party in South Africa. His three-dimensional metal works and furniture items are also sought after by museums and galleries internationally.
Bester feels that art is a more convenient language for him, enabling him to work silently for months without talking. It is a form of communication between him and the outside world.
Bester's works are very popular, although sometimes the audience finds his messages hard to deal with. This means that sometimes his works are more favourably received overseas, because in South Africa people still want to avoid the issues he is dealing with. He feels that local galleries are also not visited by enough of the public here, since during Apartheid they were banned. His next exhibition will be at the Association of the Visual Arts in Cape Town in December 1998.