Authenticity personified – VIP Bodyguard Rory Steyn on Nelson Mandela, the man he protected for five years.

Among the innovations at the third BizNews Conference (BNC#3) are informal ‘nightcap’ conversations, one featuring Rory Steyn, who spent five years as the head of Nelson Mandela’s security detail. In this appetiser, Steyn reveals his thoughts on South Africa’s most famous president, shares a constant observer’s insights into the current incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa, and answers whether Rob Hersov is correct to claim Mandela would vote for the DA were he alive today. Rory speaks to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

Rory Steyn serving as Nelson Mandela’s chief of security 

People love to hear the stories about the privilege I had to serve Madiba for the five years he was our president and how it came about – meeting him for the first time – especially given the fact that I was a white cop but also came from a security branch background. So, Nelson Mandela and Rory Steyn should have been mortal enemies; yet, he accepted me. And not only did he accept me, he also rebuffed an attempt (I guess one would call it) because when the intelligence services discovered this young team leader assigned to the president had the background I had, they went to him and said he needs to get rid of me. He said: “No, you leave that boy. He’s done a good job and he has proved himself.” He later said to me they were not looking for the people who were carrying out instructions from the old [regime] and everything the security police were known for. He said: “We want the people who were giving those instructions.” It was a real lightbulb moment for me. What it meant was that I was employed to do a job that demanded loyalty to my president, to the head of state. But long before I was called on to be loyal to him, he was loyal to me. He didn’t have to do that.

On Mandela’s release and the unbanning of illegal organisations

I think that even compared to Gandhi or Churchill, he is the human being of the 21st century. I watched him change the country from an up-close-and-personal perspective. But he also changed me very profoundly. If you watch the movie at ‘94 and roll it back to 1990 when I was actively serving in the churches section of the security branch at John Foster Square when FW de Klerk made that historic announcement, there was probably a TV on in the tearoom but we weren’t really paying attention. I mean, who listens to politicians when you’re a cop right? Then the next thing he said he was releasing Mr Mandela unconditionally, and unbanning all the political organisations. When he signed it into law, the security branch had no more work because the illegal people and organisations we had focused on, were now legal. On 11 February, when President Mandela was released from Victor Verster, he went to the Grand Parade in Cape Town to make his first speech as a free man and the world’s media were all hanging [on his every word]. We didn’t even know what he looked like as it was illegal to publish a photograph of him or anything he said. So, he went to the Grand Parade and one of the tenets of what he said was a quote from the Freedom Charter: “South Africa is for all her people, both black and white.” This cynical cop sitting in his office in John Forster went, “Whatever, of course, you’re going to say that. That’s the party line.” We were instructed and trained in what the ideology of the ANC was because warfare 101 was to know your enemy’s strategy or philosophy. I believed what he said to be a mere PR line. However, four years later, I got to meet him, work with him and serve in this particular capacity. In a matter of two, three months, I realised all of the stuff he was saying like “we need to build one South Africa”, “we need a united people”, “the country is for all of us” was absolutely sincere. He lived it and I bought into that philosophy of his hook, line and sinker.

On Mandela’s rare consistency in treating every human being the same

You cannot put a facade and Mandela in the same sentence. People often ask me what he was like. The greatest compliment that I can pay, and the easiest way to describe him is to say that how you perceived him on a TV screen is exactly how he was. He had this very rare quality of treating every person he interacted with, the same, whether he was speaking to another head of state, a gardener, his family or to us as his bodyguards. He treated everybody the same and that is so rare. Not even mentioning how rare it is among politicians and any leader, to be so utterly consistent in treating people the same.

On the current South African leaders, not able to recapture Mandela’s principles

I’m an optimist and will believe this till I go to my grave because every single day, we see South Africans of every hue and colour doing wonderful acts of kindness for and to one another. At some point, that has to have an impact; like the cliche that it only takes one flame flickering to push away the darkness. I believe there is more than enough of that kind of goodwill. I don’t say this looking through rose-coloured spectacles, I see it every single day. I think that once we get a grip on the kind of chaos and mayhem we’ve had to endure for the last 10 or 11 years, evidenced by what happened in KZN in July last year, we are going to be the country in which everybody wants to invest. I’m not an economist; however, we need a change at the top. I’m not referring to the president. I have a lot of respect for our president, but those immediately below him, I don’t think are the leaders who are going to get us there.

On whether Cyril Ramaphosa’s intent in leading the nation is genuine

I think there is a bit of both. I’d like to believe he is an authentic leader and a good president. I think he has to pacify or play towards certain factions to keep his power base. I’m not a politician, so I don’t even know whether that statement is accurate. I’m merely going on the evidence of what I witness. What I see is a man who has the wherewithal and is probably the right guy for the moment, but who is severely hamstrung by those below him.

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