Or: Motorcade madness; VIP security overkill
First erupted: early-2000s
For most people in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal it’s a common sight. A parade of black BMWs, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, blasting through traffic and often driving illegally in the process. All because one person, considered a VIP (Very Important Politician), is being transported from one place to another. Occupying the various support cars are that person’s security personnel, who have no qualms breaking traffic laws, pushing people around and generally acting like they own the place. Which is possibly because they really believe they do.
While Nelson Mandela’s presidential security team was (famously) racially integrated and polite to everyone, things have changed rather dramatically since the mid-’90s, as VIP culture has emerged in positions of power and status. Thabo Mbeki set a precedent by specifying that his entourage include two separate cars carrying doctors, in case one of them was involved in the same accident he was in. Around the country, increasing numbers of ministers – some senior, others less so – worked out that your status was directly proportional to the number of black motor vehicles with blue lights in your immediate vicinity. Kgalema Motlanthe, in his brief time in charge, couldn’t quite keep up with the trends – he often moved around with just three cars; his in the middle – but under Zuma, matters have escalated somewhat.
It now appears that almost every ANC provincial MEC has a set of guards who believe they are well within their rights to break the law. And speeding, reckless driving and generally offensive road behaviour are only the start of it. On the N12 near Johannesburg a motorist was assaulted for getting “too close” to a convoy. On the N3 near Durban a guard fired his gun out the window, while travelling at high speed, when a car didn’t give way; it led to an accident that injured six people. In Ulundi a pedestrian was killed by a car travelling in Zuma’s cavalcade. In Cape Town, another incident involving Zuma’s team occurred when a student was arrested and held in a cell overnight after gesturing at the presidential motorcade while out jogging; he has brought a R1.45 million case against the state for kidnap and torture.
Many journalists covering ANC events can relate stories of being pushed around and confronted by groups of big angry men just because they took a picture of their nice BMW. It’s hard to really contemplate the idiocy of this. Journalists are invited to watch the president in action; visiting a hospital, say. As he gets out of the car TV people and photographers crowd around as he thoroughly enjoys waving to them. But take a picture of the same car a few minutes later and suddenly you’re committing treason…
In November 2012, a car transporting Gauteng housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi jumped a red light and drove over Krugersdorp teenager Thomas Ferreira on his buzz bike. Ferreira was seriously injured and will likely never be the same again. Mmemezi had been late for a meeting. After Premier Nomvula Mokonyane visited the family to pay her condolences, she was interviewed on local radio as she drove away. Over the speed limit with her sirens on. Really. As she was quizzed about this amazingly inappropriate behaviour, she explained that for her “an emergency is when I’m late for a meeting”. So that’s official, then. Feel free to try that excuse for speeding for yourself the next time you have a pleasant conversation with a member of your local constabulary.
Journalists with long memories talk about how much less security there was around Parliament during the bad old days of apartheid compared to now. And that’s not even counting the annual State of the Nation address, when all of central Cape Town is placed in lockdown and you’re lucky to get in without having to leave a limb behind as a deposit. The justification for all of this is supposed to be “threat assessments” that are, supposedly, routinely undertaken by “the police”. But it’s hard to think it’s not much more than a bit of VIP bling for those in power who enjoy showing that they’re in power.
Public anger at these blue-light motorcades is growing; it used to be just middle-class whites venting their frustrations on the topic, but now everybody moans about them. The DA-controlled Western Cape has picked up on this and shrewdly banned them from its roads, looking for (and getting) an obvious thumbs-up from voters.
There have already been plenty of relatively minor incidents – though try telling that to Thomas Ferreira’s family – and it’s only a matter of time before one of these power-drunk VIP protection units actually ploughs into a bus, killing many people and causing a major scandal. Perhaps the people in the backseat could tell their drivers to slow down before we
Extracted from the “Controversies” chapter of SA Politics Unspun, published by Two Dogs and available from Kalahari.com. Read our interview with Grootes about the book.