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.
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.
“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.
“Every time we pulled over, they would go into the garage for lunch or breakfast. They brought each of us a Chelsea bun and a Coke. For three days, that is all I ate. I haven’t eaten a Chelsea bun since,” he exclaims.
This is where the passion for critical planning and problem-solving skills developed for the man who was once a CPO. He also says that improvising is an imperative for the job in order to seem personable.
“Sometimes, the plan changes and you have to spend a little more time with the client. You need to make sure you can talk about current issues and answer questions as much as possible. It makes the client feel more secure,” he says.
Creating a rapport with the client within the duration of protection is vital as it builds trust, especially when in situations of danger. Which is why the stakes are high.
Protecting a Saudi prince, for example, is charged at R120,000 ($8,517) a day.
The amount is significantly higher than the cost of a hitman. In downtown Johannesburg, an assassin can be hired for a mere R20,000 ($1,435), Viljoen says.
The prince, who usually visits for three to 10 days, is offered the most premium protection money can buy.
His protection includes, but is not limited to, the dispersal of 12 bodyguards, and a motorcade of six cars divided into three teams.
Three CPOs keep a close watch on the client at all times while the advance teams clear the vicinity.
The evacuation team remains on standby, on the lookout for threats and tactical responses, while the back-up team keeps eyes and ears close to the ground from a distance.
All of these are considered when final expenses are being tallied.
“A close risk assessment on the client and what they require will determine the billing. If the risk is higher, the cost will increase but if it is a regular guy down the road, they will require one bodyguard at R4,500 ($319) a day,” he says.
“You can do three to four good jobs during your career, protecting one client, and earn more than enough money,” Viljoen says.
BGA, on the other hand, bills the client directly, with a fixed salary of R6,000 ($425) payable to the bodyguard.
“Our outlay is making sure that we look after our protectors and that they are remunerated correctly. In the past, there has been a lot of abuse of protectors. For example, during the 2010 World Cup, companies were selling protection services for R6,000 ($425) a day and paying protectors R1,500 ($107),” Ludwig says.
Extra needs like helicopters, cars, and accommodation are billed directly to the client.
An international client flying to South Africa for a safari that started at the Cape and went all the way up to the northern game drives in the Limpopo province, paid for all costs incurred.
“If you are billing in dollars, depending on the country and climate, the billing can range from $450 to $800 a day,” he says.
Is this price enough to take a bullet for? Ludwig unequivocally states that it’s about the principle, not the price.
“If you are in this industry, you should be prepared to stand in front of your client to take a bullet. It is all very noble but you can’t protect a client if you’re standing and actually taking the bullet. I am not literally going to take a bullet but I will stand in front of it and engage the threat. If that means taking a bullet [while under threat], then that is what it takes, but you are not a bullet-catcher,” he says.
NightGuard Security has been operational for 44 years. It is under the management of the Eblen brothers, who began their work as CPOs immediately after they completed their final matric examinations. This, at the behest of their father, who founded the business.
The brothers take pride in running towards trouble as opposed to turning away from it. Shortly after a ‘brief’ with an intermediary representing a high-profile pastor who is possibly under threat, FORBES AFRICA meets the ‘brothers in arms’, Zaine Eblen and Emile ‘Moolie’ Eblen, at their head office in a gated residential area in Fourways, an upmarket area in Johannesburg. Their brother, JP, also a part of the business, could not make the interview.
As we stand at the gate waiting to be ushered into the premises, we are met with curious looks from the protectors as they prepare to gear up to guard the rich and famous.
A hesitant CPO approaches the imposing gate at the entrance of the building, and looks around furtively before he offers assistance.
Behind him a small lobby filled with about nine men.
Their eyes are fixed on every move as we make our way to the boardroom on the second floor.
We are seated but there is nobody else in room.
In the blink of an eye, two muscular men walk into the room. Their hulking presence consumes the entire space, however, their genteel demeanour completely disarms us.
The duo feel the intricacies of their work are often trivialized.
“Everyone believes that they can do VIP protection because they have got a guy that is six feet tall. All your VIP protection has to go for proper tactical training, it doesn’t mean just because you are tall, you can be a bodyguard,” Zaine says.
“Family is a big word to us. When we say be a part of our family, we literally mean that,” Zaine says.
“We have to understand the target and his family. He has the hit and [therefore] the risk is for his whole family. So we do a check on his family. What school they attend, where they work and how big the threat is,” Emile adds.
In order to protect his life and eliminate a possible threat towards his family, the pastor is charged R10,000 ($710) a day for protection.
The pastor’s intermediaries stand on guard as they prepare to be escorted by NightGuard Security to an unknown location where the spiritual leader awaits them. FORBES AFRICA watches as a white Land Rover, with dark-tinted windows arrives and in unison, all the men get into the vehicle without uttering a single word.
A cautious Zaine reminds the driver that he should not hesitate to pull away if there are any moments of doubt on the road.
“If you feel that you are in a situation that you shouldn’t be in, instead of panicking, just move out of the situation,” he says.
“The biggest problem in the industry today is that people don’t take care of their staff,” he says as he leads us back into the office.
He emphasizes that the key to harmony in the industry is through ensuring that CPOs are as well taken care of as the clients they tend to.
“The bodyguards live in upmarket areas. We eliminate the risk by moving them to a safer estate so that they are not vulnerable to threats themselves. They have moved from areas where criminals have access to them,” Emile says.
The importance of security estates has been a particular area of interest for the protection company, and the dynamic industry is in a perpetual state of change, which means the guards are always adapting to the climate.
The days of having bodyguards live with you have gone by. The only time they come in is if there is a hit on that person’s life. We do massive housing estates with about 400 units.
“We can’t predict how situations play out. We have been in situations where people start shooting.
“There was a hit on a Serbian drug lord and we got a call for back-up. He was shot in his car parked in Bedfordview, and he drove off. He was followed to his complex and was gunned down. He had R100,000 ($7,165) next to him but they did not take any money, it was a pure drug hit,” Zaine says.
“You are basically scared for your life because you don’t know if you are coming home. My wife signs a cross on my forehead before I leave home,” Emile adds.
The scope of their work goes beyond the high secured walls of private residential estates.
In recent years, they have also dispersed VIP units into shopping malls in upmarket areas and they say this has reduced the high levels of armed robberies and hijackings in the last four years. The payment model for this service differs slightly.
“The monthly fee means that the detail has a permanent post for the month; the cost would be for two CPOs for day shift and night shift, and a tactical team member. Cost comes down to R140,000 ($9,941) a month,” he says.
There are jobs that stand out to the crew and affect the way they make future decisions. There are also instances where it becomes difficult to leave them in the past.
Zaine offers an anecdote about an incident where an individual living in one of the residential estates they were guarding was murdered and they had to follow the lead.
“We took a suspect we arrested for murder in one of the complexes. We linked him to 32 murder cases and he led us to a ‘kingpin’ in Hillbrow. We had intel that they were armed with AK47s. The whole drive you are reflecting, music doesn’t help so you are just driving there in silence,” Zaine says.
In another instance, residents felt their lives were threatened after they witnessed an attempted assassination in their complex in Johannesburg. The estate manager and NightGuard Security client (who asked to be anonymous), observed the high levels of crime in the upmarket areas he works in.
“They broke into the estate and without cutting any wires, entered the property. It was only afterwards we found out that the owner was involved in the tender business and he had a hit on his back,” he says.
They are very diligent about the security measures they have in place in residential estates. “Ninety percent of the problems come from outside, you need to make sure your cameras and devices work so you can identify threats before they approach you. The bigger the fence, the more the guys want to get in.”
“Camera analytics has made life a whole lot easier. Cameras on vehicles will allow us to see a threat before they are close enough to approach us. In this industry, you constantly have to upgrade your technology,” Zaine echoes.
So whether you are one of Africa’s richest or just love the spotlight, if you have the dollars to purchase a longer lifespan, there are people who will dodge bullets for you, and do it for a neat price.