Planet

Be­fore he was as­signed as Nel­son Man­dela’s per­sonal body­guard, Rory Steyn wished him dead. Here’s how the great ‘Madiba’ won him over.

Element - - Contents - By Jamie Joseph

“Iowe so much to Madiba.”

So says Rory Steyn, the for­mer chief body­guard of Nel­son Man­dela dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial years – from 1994 to 1999.

Steyn is com­ing to New Zealand in Au­gust, a muchan­tic­i­pated high­light of the 2014 TEDxAuck­land line-up.

He says the global icon, af­fec­tion­ately known as Madiba, had a huge in­flu­ence on him: “The lessons gained while pro­tect­ing a true leg­end is some­thing that trans­lates into my life ev­ery day.”

In 1994 Rory Steyn was a young white po­lice of­fi­cer with an ugly past. He had been ac­tively in­volved in the ha­rass­ment of se­nior anti-apartheid ac­tivists, and he was a typ­i­cal con­ser­va­tive South African po­lice­man who saw Nel­son Man­dela as a ter­ror­ist. When Steyn was as­signed to Man­dela’s pro­tec­tion it was no more than a for­mal ad­min­is­tra­tion han­dover from one pres­i­den­tial term to the next.

Steyn, like all the other white body­guards as­signed to Man­dela, was ex­pect­ing his march­ing pa­pers within the week. In­stead what he got was a five-year, un­ob­structed view of a man that could heal a na­tion – and him­self – up close.

Steyn’s trans­for­ma­tion be­gan with the sim­plest and most ba­sic of things: good man­ners. Steyn saw that Man­dela never walked past women or chil­dren with­out greet­ing them. Every­one was treated the same, ir­re­spec­tive of their colour, age, gen­der or so­cial po­si­tion. As he ob­served Man­dela dur­ing those first few weeks, he ex­pected to see the cracks, but even­tu­ally came to the con­clu­sion that the Pres­i­dent was gen­uine.

“When I started work­ing for Madiba, for the first time I was recog­nised as some­body, not a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen,” says Steyn. “The pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent barely tol­er­ated us, but Madiba would al­ways thank us, and make us feel like we were do­ing some­thing vi­tally im­por­tant. And there I was, this white racist who had once wished him dead, and yet he was able to put the past be­hind him and treat me as an equal.”

The Pres­i­dent’s body­guards found them­selves liv­ing a sur­real ex­is­tence. Some­times they would oc­cupy the grand­est of ho­tels, palaces or pres­i­den­tial guest houses as Man­dela toured the world. Then, sud­denly, they would be pre­par­ing for the Pres­i­dent to tour a poverty-stricken vil­lage, or make vis­its to pa­tients at hos­pi­tal wards, with­out the press ever know­ing.

“Madiba was one of those rare ex­cep­tions,” says Steyn. “He was in­cred­i­bly hum­ble, and seemed to thrive when­ever he was called upon to min­gle, es­pe­cially if it meant spend­ing time with those suf­fer­ing from hard­ships.”

Steyn was with Man­dela when, in 1995, as a spe­cial guest of then US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, Man­dela was in New York to at­tend the 50th an­niver­sary of the United Na­tions. Man­dela took his usual 5am walk in Cen­tral Park. Then he saw a home­less person in the dark­ness ahead of him. To the hor­ror of the Se­cret Ser­vice, the Pres­i­dent de­vi­ated from his course and made to go over and greet the man. He was blocked by the anx­ious Amer­i­cans, but the South African body­guards knew re­sis­tance was fu­tile and, even­tu­ally, Madiba talked them all into pay­ing one home­less soul the visit of a life­time.

Man­dela was of­ten in­structed by his doc­tors to forego his of­fi­cial du­ties and get some rest in Qunu, his home town. But in­vari­ably there would be a knock at the door – usu­ally one of the el­ders ask­ing for as­sis­tance in re­solv­ing a lo­cal dis­pute. There he wasn’t the Pres­i­dent, but rather a se­nior mem­ber of the lo­cal clan who had a duty to as­sist in the is­sues of the vil­lage.

“It’s al­most as if they were un­aware of the power of this in­ter­na­tional states­man,” adds Steyn. “[It was] hardly the stuff of pres­i­dents, but a mea­sure of the man.”

One sleep­less night af­ter speak­ing with some home­less street kids in Cape Town, Man­dela de­cided to give one third of his pres­i­den­tial salary to­ward a fund that could deal specif­i­cally with chil­dren, and this be­came the Nel­son Man­dela Chil­dren’s Fund. Ev­ery year for his birth­day, Man­dela would host a huge chil­dren’s party for those es­pe­cially poor or sick.

Nel­son Man­dela was 95 years old when, last year on De­cem­ber 5, the world said its good­byes.

Says Steyn: “The late Mr Nel­son Man­dela fol­lowed three rules through­out his own per­sonal jour­ney; free your­self, free oth­ers, and serve ev­ery­day – it was not just his mantra, it was his way of life.”

See page 7 for de­tails of TEDxAuck­land.

Photo: AP

Rory Steyn and ‘Madiba’.

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