Chris Moerdyk

Mandela's long test drive to freedom

2013-07-01 08:45

Chris Moerdyk 

Picture the scene. Months of telephone calls, faxes, letters and organisation going into the first meeting between a just released Robben Island prisoner called Nelson Mandela and the chairperson of one of the world's most iconic brands.

The meeting between Mandela and BMW chairperson Eberhardt von Kuenheim was to take place at the then ANC headquarters, Shell House in Johannesburg.

The two people organising what was going to be a very simple one hour meeting over tea and biscuits was Cyril Ramaphosa and me.

It wasn't too hard and we even remembered some very important minor details. Such as how they should greet each other. I told Cyril that my boss was "Mr" Von Kuenheim as his doctorate was honorary and in Germany as in South Africa, honorary doctors don't get called doctors.

Interesting you mention that, replied Ramaphosa, it's "Mr" Mandela too because his doctorate is also honorary.

The big day came and as we trooped into the ANC headquarters Nelson Mandela came out smiling to meet us and with his hand outstretched he said: "Welcome Doctor Von Kuenheim", who instantly replied, "a pleasure to meet you Doctor Mandela."

Both of them had the same sort of twinkle in their eyes and as Cyril Ramaphosa quietly shook his head and smiled at me, I could not help thinking that they had done that on purpose. Sending a little message to us both that they did not have to be taught how to greet people.

In the early 1990s my job as head of strategic planning at BMW South Africa became a little more important than very strategically planning to just happen to be in the neighbourhood of St Andrew's in Scotland round about the time the Open championship was being played. Or trying to develop a five year plan without actually knowing what the social, political or economic environment was go to be like by tea time the following day.

Anyway, an important part of our corporate strategic plan in those days centred on the man who was going to become the new president of South Africa.

On one hand, it did not take rocket science to know that under his leadership South Africa would prosper and that multi-nationals such as BMW would be able to start exporting from this country at long last.

But, there was also a rather chilling reality that in the heated build-up to the 1994 elections, there would be some people in South Africa who would not want to see Mandela as president and the prospect of his assassination could not be discounted.

So, in the interests of the future of South Africa and to prevent the collapse of business through this sort of calamity, we decided that it was far too dangerous for Mandela to just be driven around in an ordinary car.

We got permission from our head office in Germany to give him an armoured 7-series BMW complete with bullet resistant windows and bodywork, its own oxygen supply, run-flat tyres and gun ports through which his bodyguards could stick two machine guns stored in a little compartment above the sun visors and literally blast any attackers to kingdom come.

We phoned Cyril Ramaphosa who said thanks for the gesture but Mr Mandela could not possibly accept the gift of a car. He added that such a car would probably have to be bought for him once he was president, but in the meantime he would just have to make do with the car he had.

We strategised a bit more and phoned Cyril Ramaphosa again. We suggested that if government was going to buy him an armoured car when he was president was it not a good idea for him to at least have a test drive?

Ramaphosa reluctantly agreed and a date was set up. So, about a year before the elections a colleague and I delivered the armoured Beemer to Nelson Mandela at his home in Houghton.

It was early morning and he had, a few hours earlier, just returned from a visit to the Far East. He and Cyril Ramaphosa received us with friendliness and enormous hospitality.

I was offered tea and got up to get it from a tray on the sideboard. Ramaphosa stopped me and said that he would pour my tea because The ANC needed to get used to serving people. It was quite remarkable to be in a room with two of the most humble yet charismatic men I have ever met in my life.

For the next year, BMW's strategic plan was for me to be out of the office, unavailable or otherwise engaged every time someone from the ANC would phone and ask when we wanted the car back from the test drive.

As it turned out it was the longest test drive in motoring history. We felt absolutely no remorse for our trickery because we reckoned that anything that could keep the great man safe was totally justified.

 Within days of his being inaugurated as President, Nelson Mandela paid for the car.

* This is an excerpt from the ebook Personal Encounters with Nelson Mandela, Bobby Kennedy and Tessie the Tassle Tosser by Chris Moerdyk.

- Follow Chris on Twitter.

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