This is how Nelson Mandela acquired his first BMW

25 June 2020 - 07:57 By Chris Moerdyk
Madiba had a number of BMWs during his presidential term, and is seen here getting the keys to a 7 Series in the late 1990s from former BMW SA boss Ian Robertson. Picture: SUPPLIED
Madiba had a number of BMWs during his presidential term, and is seen here getting the keys to a 7 Series in the late 1990s from former BMW SA boss Ian Robertson. Picture: SUPPLIED

When former president Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Chris Moerdyk was the head of strategic planning and public affairs at BMW SA.

Chris has been prolifically writing a Lockdown Diary on his Facebook page, and in Lockdown Diary 82 he tells the charming inside story of how Madiba came to acquire the use of a BMW 7 Series:

In the early 1990s my job as head of strategic planning at BMW SA became a little more important than very strategically planning to just happen to be in the neighbourhood of St Andrew's in Scotland round 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 going to be like by tea time the following day.

Anyway, an important part of our corporate strategic plan in those days centred on the man who was going to become the new president of SA.  

On one hand, it did not take rocket science to know that under his leadership SA would prosper and that multinationals such as BMW would be able to start exporting from this country at long last.

But, there was also a rather chilling reality that in the heated build-up to the 1994 elections. There would be some people in SA 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 SA 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.

We got permission from our head office in Germany to give him an armoured 7 Series BMW 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 literally 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. So, about a year before the elections a colleague and I delivered the armoured Beemer to Mandela at his home in Houghton.

It was early morning and he had, a few hours earlier, returned from a visit to the Far East. He and Ramaphosa received us with friendliness and enormous hospitality.

I was offered tea and got 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.

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 the car 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.