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Men in black — bodyguards without a cause

It’s always struck me as rather odd the way ANC politicians and public servants seem obsessed with security. Surely, as democratically elected representatives of the people they should feel free to walk in the streets without let or hindrance? The much-hated apartheid hierarchy were certainly nowhere near as paranoid about being assassinated as our supposedly much-loved present leadership is. Nowadays every two-bit town clerk, mayor, deputy minister or third wife demands a throng of square-jawed thugs in black suits, dripping with earphones and sunglasses, to accompany them wherever they go, and all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Years ago I met an ex-cop who was very partial to the old South Africa and not too fond of the new. We started talking about his days of being an official bodyguard, and the man came up with some enlightening anecdotes. He and a couple of colleagues were once looking after a very high-profile Nationalist cabinet minister who booked into a room at the Royal Hotel in Durban. They were holding station outside the door of his suite when two hookers arrived. “The minister let them in and told us to take the night off, but we declined because our job was to look after him,” the ex-cop told me. The discussion became a little heated. “Eventually we compromised and agreed to sit in the lounge downstairs for an hour or two while he enjoyed the privacy he obviously needed.” While they were downstairs the bodyguards were called to the phone. It was the minister, instructing them to bring some drinks up to his room. They declined and told him to call room service because they were there to protect him, not wait on him.

Interestingly, the same right-wing fellow was tasked with looking after Nelson Mandela in the same hotel after the old man was released from prison but before the ’94 election. He and his two colleagues saw Madiba to his room and took up station on chairs outside the door. After an hour or so Mandela opened the door, saw them there and told them there was no need to sit up all night as he was going to sleep. They told him that they had to do their duty so he went back inside. A few minutes later the door opened once again, and the future president told them he’d organised for them to occupy the room across the passage, so two could sleep while one sat up watching his door, each in turn.

That showed class.

There were two interesting stories in my morning newspapers today that got me thinking about this subject. The Mercury kicked off my day with a front-page story about Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, South Africa’s first, second or third wife, whatever, being found guilty of unlawfully dismissing her domestic worker, and ordered to cough up R16 000. The story mentioned that when the worker, Sbongile Doris Ngobese, stayed off sick (after being short paid), Ntuli-Zuma sent her bodyguard to give Ngobese her money and get her back to work. The bodyguard returned with the sick note and no solution to the mounting piles of dirty dishes and ironing, so he was sent back the next day to tell the domestic not to bother returning to work. I don’t know how Ntuli-Zuma coped with the immense pressure of fearing for her life while her bodyguard couriered messages between her and her aggrieved domestic servant, but I’m quite sure he was the most expensive deliveryman in town.

The second story, in The Times, reported on the attack on Zindzi Mandela’s family as they arrived at their northern Johannesburg home earlier this week. The report said that two unknown gunmen pounced on the car carrying Zindzi’s children when the driver dropped them at home after their famous grandfather’s birthday party the Sunday before. “The driver,” said the paper “is believed to be Winnie Mandela’s bodyguard”.

Not a very good one either, by the sounds of it. He apparently lay down on the ground at the request of the bad guys before the shooting broke out, and then, when he did eventually draw his weapon managed to not hit anybody in the subsequent shootout.

I’m glad that the four children escaped this very peculiar attack without injury, but would still like to know how the criminally convicted ex-wife of a president, albeit a great one, who left office more than a decade ago qualifies for a full-time bodyguard at my expense. And, if she does need one, should he be sent out to chauffeur her daughter’s children around, no doubt in government vehicles using government fuel? And who was looking after Winnie, whose life is apparently under permanent threat, while her bodyguard played taxi driver to her grandkids?

There’s only one simple explanation. The ruling elite has bodyguards chiefly as status symbols, but they also come in handy for carrying messages to the servants, and for playing taxi driver to friends and family when required.


  • Gavin Foster

    Durban photojournalist Gavin Foster writes mainly for magazines. His articles and photographs have appeared in hundreds of South African, American and British publications, and he's also instigated and researched stories for Carte Blanche. Winner of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa PICA Profile Writer of the Year Award in 2008. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2015/16/17. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Overall) 2015/16. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorsport Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2017 - Runner-Up 2015/16.