The day Madiba took on the AWB

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Jeremy Vearey, front left, helps form a human shield around Nelson Mandela in 1994. Photo: OBED ZILWA

Cape Town - Nelson Mandela managed to diffuse a potentially explosive situation when about 80 armed AWB members stormed his hotel in Beaufort West, intent on taking him hostage - an incident that has never before been publicised.

He calmed the situation by meeting the leader of the AWB unit and in less than half an hour the man “left with his tail between his legs”.

Jeremy Vearey, now a police major general who had been a member of Mandela’s bodyguarding contingent in the 1990s, described how instead of cowering, Mandela insisted on talking face to face with those who viewed him as a bitter enemy.

In June 1990, Vearey had been released from Robben Island where he had been held as a prisoner and afterwards became part of the ANC’s intelligence wing.

“I was part of a group of people that was then trained outside of the country to be part of a bodyguarding team especially for (Mandela),” Vearey said.

Vearey was among 15 out of 200 who graduated from the course.

He said early in 1994, during election canvassing time, the right wing and the AWB in particular had a campaign to disrupt ANC campaign meetings.

Vearey said Mandela had been keen on addressing the Beaufort West community as part of his election planning.

But before the time they got wind that a group from the AWB, members of the elite Ystergarde (Iron Guard) unit, planned to prevent this.

Vearey said an AWB leader in the Boland was in charge of the planned Beaufort West action.

“They’d try and lay siege to Beaufort West to stop (Mandela) entering and, if he should enter, they’d occupy the hotel he was in and hold us hostage,” Vearey said.

“Madiba decided despite this he would go to Beaufort West. He decided this: ‘We will not step back’.”

He and his colleagues were instructed to deal with the situation.

“We managed to get into Beaufort West with the old man through the barricades and got to the hotel,” Vearey said.

He declined to reveal how they got Mandela into the town.

Vearey and his colleagues had planned an operation which involved people in the town starting to talk to AWB members who were “taking (up) post” in the area.

This was to try to neutralise the situation on the ground.

However, Vearey said AWB members, headed by the Boland leader, forced their way into the hotel Mandela was staying in.

“There were about 75 to 80 of them, and they were all armed…

“They stormed in. We confronted them,” he said.

“We said we’d shoot them if they tried anything.”

The AWB members retorted that police officers were present to witness whatever happened, but Vearey said Mandela’s bodyguarding contingent was still prepared to shoot the AWB members.

“We were fully armed with our weapons,” he said.

Despite the commotion outside, Mandela remained quietly in his hotel room.

“We reported to Mandela. He decided to meet (the AWB leader). We did necessary strip searches on the whole of the Iron Guard.”

Vearey was present at the meeting between Mandela and the AWB heads, but would not divulge what was said.

“All I can say is that after 25 minutes (the AWB leader) left there with his tail between his legs,” he said.

The rest of the AWB men followed.

Taffy Shearing, 76, who lived in Beaufort West at the time, said she had been invited to Hotel Oasis in the area that morning as she was a member of a committee meant to ensure a peaceful election.

Mandela was set to address the committee.

Shearing recalled sitting down to eat, but breakfast had not been served.

She said a waiter, Robert, explained that the Ystergarde had arrived in lorries and was “standing in squads all around the hotel”.

“We found that suddenly, to our horror, we were in the middle of potential violence…

“We didn’t see Mr Mandela. He was in a room upstairs,” Shearing said.

The waiter then told her and other guests that Mandela had asked to see the AWB leader, she said.

“He had a huge black plume on his khaki hat… We could see the ostrich feather bobbing as he went up the stairs,” Shearing said.

“After (meeting Mandela) his hat was off and he was creeping meekly down the stairs.”

Shearing said Mandela arrived soon afterwards.

“He said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so sorry I’ve been delayed. I’m hungry, what about breakfast?’ We burst out laughing,” she said.

Hotel Oasis employee Belinda Pienaar, now a receptionist there, recalled Mandela’s visit.

“There was a lot of commotion at that time. The police got dogs and searched the place,” she said.

“The police, everybody was here to see him. It was like the whole world came.”

Pienaar said Mandela had made a point of greeting her and the other staff.

“He talked to us. He said we must keep up the good work and that we must never let anyone or anything stand in our way.”

Of his visit, Pienaar said: “It was like God was here.”

AWB member Paul Visagie said he had never before heard of the Beaufort West incident.

He said there were a number of people who did unfavourable things, then blamed the AWB.

caryn.dolley@inl.co.za

Cape Times


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