Former head of strategic planning and public affairs at BMW South Africa, and friend of Double Apex, Chris Moerdyk recounts the funny story of President Mandela’s extended test drive of a BMW 7 Series.

In the early 1990s, my job as head of strategic planning at BMW South Africa became a little more important than very ‘strategically’ planning to just happen to be in the neighbourhood of St Andrew’s in Scotland around about the time the Open Championship was being played. Or, trying to develop a five year plan without actually knowing what the social, political or economic environment was go to be like by tea time the following day.

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A new SA

Anyway, an important part of our corporate strategic plan in those days centred around the man who was going to become the new president of South Africa. On one hand, it did not take rocket science to know that under his leadership South Africa would prosper and that multi-nationals such as BMW would be able to start exporting from this country at long last.

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But, there was also a rather chilling reality that in the heated build-up to the 1994 elections there would be some people in South Africa who would not want to see Mandela as president and the prospect of his assassination could not be discounted. So, in the interests of the future of South Africa and to prevent the collapse of business through this sort of calamity, we decided that it was far too dangerous for Mandela to just be driven around in an ordinary car.

Bulletproof Beemer

The Tricky Tale of Mandela’s BMW

We obtained permission from head office in Germany to give him an armoured BMW 7 Series complete with bullet resistant windows and bodywork, its own oxygen supply, run-flat tyres and gun ports through which his bodyguards could stick two machine guns stored in a little compartment above the sun visors and blast any attackers to kingdom come.

We phoned Cyril Ramaphosa who said thanks for the gesture but Mr Mandela could not possibly accept the gift of a car. He added that such a car would probably have to be bought for him once he was President, but in the meantime he would just have to make do with the car he had. We strategised a bit more and phoned Cyril again. I suggested that if government was going to buy him an armoured car when he was president was it not a good idea for him to at least have a test drive?  Ramaphosa reluctantly agreed and a date was set up.

Serving the people

So, about a year before the elections a colleague and I delivered the armoured Beemer to Nelson Mandela at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg. It was early morning and he had, a few hours earlier, returned from a visit to the Far East. He and Cyril Ramaphosa received us with friendliness and enormous hospitality.

I was offered tea and stood up to get it from a tray on the sideboard. Ramaphosa stopped me and said that he would pour my tea because the ANC needed to get used to serving people. (Something Mr Zuma and his cohorts subsequently forgot about completely.) But, at the time it was quite remarkable to be in a room with two of the most humble yet charismatic men I have ever met in my life.

Out of office

For the next year, BMW’s strategic plan was for me to be out of the office, unavailable or otherwise engaged every time someone from the ANC would phone and ask when we wanted Mandela’s BMW back from the test drive. As it turned out it was the longest test drive in motoring history. We felt absolutely no remorse for our trickery because we reckoned that anything that could keep the great man safe was totally justified.

I met Cyril a few times after that and continued to be impressed, mainly by his capacity to listen to the people around him in social situations. He certainly made me feel that he was interested in what I was saying. He is without doubt, one of the world’s good guys.

Images: BMW and Mike Monk/Franschhoek Motor Museum