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Executive Protection: Big Bucks, Bullets And Bodyguards

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The dark and dangerous lives of the men protecting the rich. The stakes are high and so too the rewards.


Muscled men wearing dark sunglasses, black tuxedos and stern looks, at the entrance of one of Africa’s most luxurious hotels. One of them whispers into a mouthpiece, and a metallic black SUV bearing a VVIP screeches into the parking lot.

Without wasting any time, the area is cleared of passers-by, and a man nattily dressed in a light blue-tailored suit is closely escorted by the men into the hotel lobby.

As the man disappears into a mosaic of opulent walls at The Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton in the pulsating business heart of Johannesburg, an unsuspecting vendor on the pavement slowly re-assembles his wares, oblivious to the high society stakes in the towers over his head.

It is a Wednesday afternoon and the financial hub is a motorist’s nightmare, filled with garrulous weekday traffic. The dark shades of the men in black glint in the sun, as they stand in closed groups engaging in casual conversation but always alive to their surroundings.

These are the bodyguards of the rich and famous, who spend their days and nights putting themselves in the spotlight – and at times, in harm’s way. And they are not to be found only in blockbuster action films. They can be seen in Africa’s elite spaces – you just need to look for them to find them.

But the exaggerated imagery apart, players in this industry protecting high-profile people, say that things have changed.

Close protection officers from NightGuard Security stand in formation. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Graham Ludwig, the Managing Director of BGA Protection, who has been in the executive protection and services industry for over 20 years, says: “There is a stereotype where the bodyguard wears a black suit, red tie and sunglasses. The reality is that you don’t want to dress like that and stand out. You want to blend in and be seen as part of the client’s entourage.” 

Often, protectors or ‘detail’ as they are referred to, find themselves dressed in simple chinos and a collar shirt to assume an incognito persona. Keeping a distance and providing protection while not getting too familiar with the client is the main objective.

The high net worth clients generally request these services. However, not all of them insist on subtlety as a prerequisite for the job.

“Generally, executives and high net worth individuals prefer a low-profile detail; they don’t like the flashy lights. That is a big ‘no’ for them; they don’t like driving in convoys. That is something we do in South Africa; but that is really frowned upon,” Ludwig says.

BGA provides executive protection and close protection services, specializing in watching over visitors concerned about security in a particular area.

Other than executives, clients range from actors to musicians and even high-ranking corporate titans who receive mandatory protection.

There are myriad reasons why individuals would require services of this nature, and some of them are indeed reminiscent of action films – business deals gone wrong, political disputes and personal vendetta that result in life-threatening situations.

Threats are often directed to the targeted individual, their family or close business associates.

Emile Eblen briefs the detail before the convoy heads to an unknown location in Johannesburg. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

“Some companies mandate that their executive team have protection because it aligns with the ‘duty of care’ which is a big thing in the industry. Duty of care, effectively, says when an employee visits another country, every possible measure of safety is taken into consideration,” Ludwig says.

Duty of care is commonly applied in finance institutions, the pharmaceuticals industry, and with actors, entertainers and individuals in the travel industry.

A meticulous program is tailor-made as each request is unique to the schedule of the client.

An example, Ludwig offers, is about a client who travels from South Africa to another African country for charity work.

The client makes contact with the service provider, in this case BGA, requesting on-the-ground protection.

“We travel to [the country] with the client’s itinerary. We start the protection at the airport, guarantee that the luggage is handled with the security to ensure that when the plane lands, the baggage is marked to the dedicated vehicle, and that the passport is stamped quickly,” he says.

 In preparation for the client’s arrival, an advanced route clearance plan ensures that all movement from the first point of contact to the last is secure.

 Clinics, police stations and evacuation plans are painstakingly drafted into the proposal weeks in advance to prepare for any unforeseen eventuality.

Every detail, no matter how minuscule, in the surrounding area is taken into consideration; even the number of stairs in a building is memorized. 

But what happens when the client changes plan?

Ludwig says high net worth individuals are less likely to cause trouble when it comes to their own safety.

Unable to pinpoint a bad experience with a client, he highlights that demands, sometimes, have had the Close Protection Officer (CPO) driving through the city in search of a specific bottle of champagne in an unfamiliar environment or at an unearthly hour.

“We were looking after an actor at a premiere, and one of the other protection details [the bodyguards] working with the directors of the movie has a serious background and he doesn’t believe in allowing fans to get close to the stars. He almost broke a guy’s hand who tried to get close, drawing attention to the detail,” Ludwig says.

This is a typical scenario leaving Willie Viljoen, Managing Director of Executive Protection Agency, with no choice but to keep VIP protection protocol to a minimum.

The detail is often mistreated and we have to put up with ridiculous demands like picking up [discarded] tissue paper for the client. It just causes HR issues and draws too much attention.

Viljoen, who joined the company in 2007, but has not been out on the field as a protection officer for the past six years, hopes that a client worth his money will coax him to get out into the streets again.

From protecting Oscar-winning South African actor Charlize Theron to some of the continent’s richest men, Viljoen will always remember his first day on duty.

He candidly offers an anecdote.

An executive in a Chinese construction firm arrived at the Durban harbor with unmarked and unregistered trucks and cranes.

A customs issue, Viljoen had to step in to resolve it.

After spending hours at the harbor, eventually, the two five-ton trucks, guarded by a three-vehicle motorcade, drove off to the Mpumalanga province in South Africa to deliver the items, at a tedious speed of 40km per hour.

What would have been an eight-hour drive turned into a three-day journey that left Viljoen with a lifetime of distaste for the otherwise scenic route.

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Arts

‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’

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A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.

Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).

In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.

Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”

How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?

“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”

A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.

“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.

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Current Affairs

True Sport: Gary Player On Family, Isolation And The Covid-19 Aftermath

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Gary Player is currently in lockdown in Pennsylvania in the US; image supplied

South Africa’s 84-year-old golf legend Gary Player speaks to FORBES AFRICA about the greatest honor of his life and on training like a 40-year-old at his daughter’s home during the lockdown in the US.

South Africa’s nine-time Grand Slam golfer, Gary Player, is currently in lockdown with his wife Vivienne in Pennsylvania, in the United States (US), where the couple are visiting their daughter Amanda-Leigh Hall and her family.

Player had also arrived in the US to receive what he calls one of the greatest honors of his life, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Donald Trump at the White House on March 23; some of the past recipients of the prestigious award include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mother Teresa, Toni Morrison, Tiger Woods and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But the lockdown changed all plans.

So the golfer, best known for an illustrious playing career that included 165 professional victories, is now in his daughter’s home, “training like a 40-year-old”.

Elated, Player classifies the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognition as coming second to the honor of being a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

When asked how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected him, the world-renowned 84-year-old golfer, nicknamed the ‘Black Night’, says in a phone interview from the US with FORBES AFRICA: “We are living in extraordinary times. This is not life as we have come to know it. My heart goes out to people during this trying time.”

Player fears the aftermath of the Covid-19 virus could be devastating to all, as some are already beginning to suffer due to the inability to earn an income.

“The post Covid-19 world may cause humans to sink into an inevitable hole of depression, and I fear that people will be dying not of the virus, but of hunger and thirst,” he says.

Player says he prays numerous times a day to thank God for his blessings. This year, he celebrates being married to Vivienne for 63 years.

“I love her even more now than I did back then, I wouldn’t trade the last 63 years for nothing on this earth,” Player says.

Vivienne has traveled the entire “amazing” route with Player while raising the couple’s six children: Jennifer, Marc, Wayne, Michelle, Theresa, and Amanda.

“I can safely, and with confidence, say that my wife is my best friend,” adds Player.

Although in his eighties, and true to his second nickname, ‘Mr Fitness’, Player may be in  lockdown in his daughter’s home but he exercises diligently at the in-house gym.

Gary Player training at the gym in his daughter’s home; image supplied

He also ventures into the forested area on his daughter’s property for long, peaceful walks in solitude. There is also a simulator at the house where Player can tee off as though on a golf course.

Including him and his wife, there are currently nine people in his daughter’s home, and although being in isolation, this experience has brought the family even closer, he says.

“All of us participate in joint activities that were never possible before due to everyone’s busy lifestyles. I love my large family,” attests the man blessed with 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is yet to meet his month-old great-grandchild born to granddaughter Antonia and who is the newest addition to his large family.

When the lockdown ends, Player hopes to return to normal life “as soon as possible”. As a businessman with a “hectic, hectic” schedule, he is eager to get back to doing what he loves and says that being patient is not an easy feat.

Commenting on his own future, Player says he wishes to be remembered as a man who tried to contribute to society despite the mistakes he made.

“When I die and pass away, I want people to know that I tried my best in life. And that I am sorry for all the mistakes I made. Admittedly, we all make mistakes.

“I want to be remembered as a man who loved his fellow men,” says the legend who has also recently been key to integrating golf courses into local communities back home in South Africa.

“I am convinced there is a black girl or boy in South Africa today with tremendous athletic prowess, with the talent. If they can just be incentivized, then there is a chance,” Player told FORBES AFRICA for a story on his new initiatives in November 2018.


Brandon Nel, FORBES AFRICA contributor

Like what you are reading? There are more such profiles of newsmakers and enterprising thought leaders driving decision-making in FORBES AFRICA. Download a digital copy today!

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Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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