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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

ONE STEP BEHIND MANDELA (article first published : 2000-10-16)

Before her untimely death, the most famous face in the world belonged to that of the late Princess Diana. This position is now fairly and squarely acknowledged as that of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the first president of democratic South Africa.

One Step Behind Mandela is co-written by Rory Steyn, former superintendent of the Presidential Protection Unit of the South African Police, and Debora Patta who became a confidante to Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel when she was chief news editor at Radio 702.

The book deals with the joys and tribulations of protecting “Madiba”, as he is affectionately known, during his term of office as president. A task not made easy by the fact that the great man does things very much his own way. His tendency to break away from his security guards to greet people in the street. His determination, often in the face of major local and international criticism, to achieve what had previously been impossible, such as persuading Muammar al-Gadaffi to resolve the impasse over the Lockerbie plane crash.

While Mandela comes over as a warm charismatic man of the people, the book also reflects his strong will and “at times downright stubbornness”, reminding the reader that it is exactly the latter characteristic that “defined his politics prior to his prison sentence”. While this was a strong quality in a leader, it was also a nightmare for those trying to protect him. Particularly when he insisted on taking his early morning (05h30) walks - sometimes playing truant and slipping out from under the gaze of his security guards to do what he loved most – mixing with everyday people.

There are endearing touches such as the fact that Mandela always makes his own bed, even in Buckingham Palace! He uses a certain brand of soap as well as a simple Bic fineliner and comfortable briefcase, despite the many elaborate and expensive counterparts received as gifts.

The book describes him as “a simple man with simple tastes now married to a woman with impeccable taste”. Since he met Graça Machel, he has developed a liking for seafood, something he wouldn’t touch when he came out of prison.

The chapters are interspersed with quotations from Mandela, short anecdotes which portray his ability to laugh at himself. The back cover bears the quotation “Smile when you push the people”, a remark to his bodyguards reminding them not to get rough with the adoring crowds.

Most people enjoy a glimpse behind-the-scenes of famous people and One Step Behind Mandela offers plenty of these. There are tales of the first lady’s suitcases going to wrong destinations, the frantic courier-ing of medals, clothing and toiletries when diplomatic communications or tour plans went awry or the huge secrecy involved in Mandela and Graça Machel’s wedding. Not to mention the frantic rush to get a locksmith to the airport when one of the security agents inadvertently locked the keys in the steel armour-plated car. The driver just managed to get behind the wheel as Mandela’s plane was in final approach!

I have had the honour of shaking Mandela’s hand. It’s an experience I will never forget. His grasp is strong and very powerful – but accompanied by the dazzling smile that goes with the greeting, you forget that it’ll take a few minutes before the feeling returns to your fingers again!

Rory Steyn now runs his own VIP security company and Debora Patta is executive producer and presenter of e-tv’s Third Degree. Together they have written a compelling book about a man they obviously love and highly respect.

One Step Behind Mandela is a soft cover book published by Struik New Holland Publishing and sells at R89.95. Containing numerous quality colour photographs, it will make a valued Christmas gift.




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