‘Unpredictable’ Madiba kept bodyguards on their toes

2013-12-09 10:35

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Nelson Mandela was a difficult man to protect, says one of the first bodyguards the former president had after his release from prison.

Mzwandile Vena (57) from Qunu, who is now a businessman based in Johannesburg, said because of his love for people and children, Madiba would order his driver to stop the car so he could greet people he saw next to the road.

“We would be in the cars behind him and suddenly when we see his car stop, we were on high alert and anxious. And we would jump off our moving vehicles only to find that tata wants to greet children playing along the road or some folks,” Vena said.

He said the period between 1990 and 1994, when he was Madiba’s bodyguard, was hectic because they attended many rallies and Madiba was in demand all over.

The security risk was as great as he was in demand, Vena said.

“Madiba would always do the unexpected. You had to be alert all the time. A choir would be singing at an event and without any warning he would just get up from his chair and join the choir. We were forced to improvise all the time.

“He was such a humble man. He did not see himself as better than other people but as the same as everyone else,” he said.

When Madiba was at a function he would refuse to eat or leave the function if his bodyguards had not eaten.

“He would ask us, calling you by name: Mzwandile, have you eaten? At times we had to say yes even if we had not eaten because he would make a big deal out of it and we would be late for the next meeting,” Vena said, adding that they worked from 6am until midnight.

He said wherever Mandela went, the reception was overwhelming.

“At the rallies we went to, particularly here in the Transkei, people would go ballistic, trying to touch him. It was as if Jesus had arrived. He brought so much hope with him. As his security team, we had to be vigilant. If something had to happen, we said: not under our watch.”

Vena recalls how they would be scolded by Madiba when they disrespected PAC leader Laurence Makwetu.

Vena said Madiba, who died at his home in Houghton on Thursday evening, would gently ask Makwetu to sit next to him and apologise for the way his bodyguards behaved.

“He had so much respect for opposition leaders. He was not petty. He was above party politics all the time,” he said.

Vena, who is now a businessman and farmer in Joburg, attributes his success to Madiba.

“He opened doors for us all over the world. He levelled the ground for us. People from across the globe want to do business with South Africans because he restored confidence in this great nation. May his soul rest in peace, he was truly a man of a special type,” Vena said.

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