The butt of the high- powered rifle had the old familiar feel, nestling against his shoulder as he crouched in the safari park.
In recent years his shooting had been mainly rabbits. Also guinea fowl – they were terribly difficult to get a clear shot at. But he was by far the best of all his friends. When they all went out for a weekend’s shooting, if anyone was going to get a guinea fowl it would be him.
His eye was still in.
Amongst his circle these days, he was something of a legend. Over a cold Castle or Windhoek beer after a shoot, his friends would pull his leg about his ‘mysterious’ past. But he would never let on, never say what he used to do.
But, now into his forties, he was fretting about his accuracy – whether he could stay rock steady during those vital seconds when the target came into view, exactly as was required.
It was one thing downing a bird, quite another a person.
He hadn’t done anything like this for nearly a quarter of a century.
That seemed a lifetime ago. And then of course, at the very pinnacle of his military career, he hadn’t needed to squeeze the trigger. Mercifully his had been a quite different duty on the momentous day when Madiba took the first steps of his long walk to freedom.
Then the Sniper had been holed up from dawn in the Cape winelands overlooking the secure Victor Verster compound in which Madiba had been incarcerated for the last few of his twenty- seven years in prison.
The Sniper, tall, muscled, especially around his shoulders and arms, had been a young man in the South African Army, renowned as one of its most proficient, when his commandant had suddenly summoned him one day in early February 1990 on direct instructions from the office of President de Klerk.
The mission was a special one, not the usual offensive attack, but one of defensive protection for the old gentleman who held the future of the nation in his hands. The newly revered one, transformed from the terrorist ogre his parents had always spoken darkly about. ‘If they ever let him out, his people will push all us whites into the sea,’ he remembered his dad repeating in his thick Afrikaans accent.
But that was then. On this special day, nothing must go wrong, could go wrong. The walk to freedom had to occur. His orders were very specific and very humbling: spot any potential assassin or assassins and shoot them, or otherwise the nation, which had been so perilously poised on the brink of civil war and financial meltdown, might be dragged back to the cliff edge – then to tumble over into murder and mayhem.
The Sniper had found a good spot amidst all the fynbos and aloe in a large clump of boulders. From there he had both a clear view of Madiba’s prison compound, the gates through which he would walk and, more importantly, any vantage points from which a shot could be fired at the great man.
From early light when he had scrambled into position – having scouted the spot late the previous evening, returned to base, eaten and grabbed some sleep – he had his binoculars trained on the surrounding landscape.
In the hills by the roadside he looked continuously for anywhere an assassin could be. There were certainly enough of them out there. Extremists, neo- Nazis, white fundamentalists, nutty ideologues: all sorts amongst whom there could be danger on the big day.
The Sniper knew exactly where to look – because he knew exactly the sort of place someone trained like him would choose, camouflaged in the stony scrub, dried out by the searing heat of the summer now just at its peak.
But the problem was the nutter might not have been trained like him. Might not be a professional. Might be a wild card, an opportunist, in some ways much more difficult to anticipate. Perhaps even a martyr, not too bothered about escaping, just doing the horrendous deed, come what may.
That was the real nightmare.
Which was why he had an African spotter, down below, much closer to the prison gate, binoculars searching intently, scrutinising everyone, everywhere, without revealing his true purpose, a permanent smile diverting attention from laser eyes and the concealed microphone under his shirt front through which he could mutter to the Sniper above.
The Sniper scoured the terrain, watching, waiting. First a few arrived, then more, then a swelling crowd, boisterous, starting to toi toi, to sing, expectantly, ecstatically.
It was joyously chaotic. And that was the problem. It was almost anarchic. TV outside- broadcast vans had rolled up by the dozen for live coverage. Reporters were talking to camera or interviewing anybody remotely authoritative, or even mildly interesting, just to fill programme space. More and more people were arriving. Cars and vans were parked up anywhere, everywhere they could find space.
And then the allotted time came and went. Through his earpiece the dreaded news that there was a delay – a long one. Madiba was ready, but his wife Winnie had self- indulgently been delayed at the hairdresser’s. Keeping her man, keeping the nation, keeping the whole world waiting for hours.
Typical, the Sniper thought. The woman was trouble, had been a real menace with her incitement of the young comrades into ‘necklacing’ and thuggery.
The Sniper knew nothing of the decades- long ordeal she had been through: the banning, beating, banishing by the old Special Branch. He had no comprehension of how she had had to bring up their two girls from toddlers to women amidst all the brutal attempts at humiliation. No understanding of the burden she carried as the wife of the globally heroic freedom fighter. He had no sympathy for her. She was just spoiling things for the man he was charged with protecting – protecting at all costs.
He sipped at his water bottle, the liquid now as hot as the sweat running all over him, as he lay prone among the rocks, seeing everything.
Then a cavalcade swept down towards and through the gate. ‘She’s arrived – about bloody time,’ a guttural clipped message came through his earpiece. ‘Copy that,’ he acknowledged.
Stretching a little to ease the aches not even his ultra-fitness could stem, he focused hard, scanning constantly.
The chanting was reaching a crescendo. This was impossible: how could he possibly do his job in the swirl of figures down below?
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, his spotter croaked excitedly in the earpiece, ‘I can see Madiba now, boss. He’s walking to freedom, boss. But I can’t see through my binocs any more, boss. They’ve misted up. Sorry, boss, can’t stop crying, boss. Never, ever thought I would see this day.’
The Sniper recalled that amazing moment. His mission then was to target the assassin. Now it was to be the assassin. How ironic.
Yet, just as his duty then was to protect Madiba, now he passionately believed he was protecting the legacy of Madiba.