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.
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