South Africa


SA author to sue LA police after being shot during protest

SA author to sue LA police after being shot during protest
Author, security expert and former MK spy, Bradley Steyn. (Photo: supplied)

What started as a peaceful protest for Bradley Steyn ended up with him having emergency surgery on a ruptured testicle after he was shot with rubber bullets by police. The former MK operative told Daily Maverick his story.

South African author, anti-apartheid activist and security expert Bradley Steyn is based in Los Angeles in the US. On 30 May, he was attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Fairfield District, Los Angeles. Steyn got into a kerfuffel with members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) when he got between them and some teenagers the police were chasing. He was beaten by the police and shot in the scrotum with a rubber bullet at close range. On Thursday 25 June, he starts legal action against the LAPD. 

Steyn first spoke to Daily Maverick at the beginning of June, a few days after he got out of hospital.

“They saved 40% of my left testicle. I’m in so much pain. I have been shot twice and got stabbed once, but this is the worst pain I have ever experienced.”

After surgery (Photo: supplied)

Steyn has a long history with activism and bullets. Born in 1971, he grew up just outside Pretoria in Verwoerdburg, which he describes as “the heart of the National Party’s power base”, being next to Valhalla Air Force Base.  

He says just about everyone there was connected to the army in some way. “All the kids I used to go to school with, [their] parents served in the armed forces, one of my best friends’ dad helped build seven of the atomic bombs in South Africa. Anyway…” 

Steyn is matter of fact about this – he was a child and a teenager who happened to be white and Afrikaans in an era that South Africa is still trying to put behind it. Pretoria, the geographic centre of power behind the machinery and support structures of a racist regime, was an accident of location beyond his control and as such, is merely the backyard of his childhood. As a teenager, his days were filled with school and rugby practice and he also did ballet.

“I liked the ballet because of the girls.”  

He was no stranger to the State Theatre as his mother worked at PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal). 

And so it was that on 15 November 1988, his day was focused on going to see Giselle at the State Theatre that night. Steyn, then 17 years old, went to school as normal, followed by rugby practice, after which his thoughts turned to the ballet. 

“I had my kit bag with me and I caught the train into Pretoria. Then I was walking towards the State Theatre and I crossed over Strijdom Square, and as I was walking across the square I heard gunshots and then I saw people scatter and I saw terrified black faces running towards me.” 

Steyn had walked into the middle of the Strijdom Square Massacre. He hid behind a low wall next to a younger black teenager who called to him to get himself out of harm’s way. Looking over the wall, he saw “this white guy in police combat fatigues, I thought he was a task force guy. I thought he was going to catch a bad guy, so I was intrigued, and I saw him walk up to this black person and shoot him. Then I realised that this guy was just shooting people.”

From his hiding place behind the wall, Steyn watched the shooter kill at least two other people. After a while the younger teen jumped up and ran. 

“He was very upset and he ran towards the Church Street exit. I followed him and as I turned the corner this guy shot him twice, and I ran up to them and this guy turned around and as he saw that I was white, he lowered his gun.” 

Steyn knelt by the shot teenager who was “bleeding out” and cradled his head on his lap. 

The teenager who walked into Strijdom Square with a rugby kit over his shoulder and ballet dancer fantasies in his head, never came out. Instead, a traumatised young man exited the square, leaving the gentler, rugby-playing, ballet-dancing version of himself cradling the head of a bleeding black teenager in the square. 

From then on he was constantly in trouble and became what today is often referred to as “a troubled young man”.

“I suffered tremendously from PTSD after that. I dropped out of school, I had anger issues.” 

His parents sent him to Cape Town where he ended up in the navy, which did not last long, after his father had a heart attack and his commanding officer would not let him leave. He threw the officer out of a window and left. Not surprisingly, he was discharged a short while thereafter. 

He then entered a new phase of his life – working as a bouncer at a gay nightclub. This led to other “bouncing” jobs and security work for a variety of establishments, leading to more nefarious and violent “jobs”.  At the end of this particular bloody path was his recruitment as an Umkhonto we Sizwe spy – but what set him on the path was being there when Barend Strydom murdered seven people in cold blood on 15 November 1988.  Seven dead black people, 16 wounded black people and one traumatised white teenager who later became an MK spy. 

He says that for most of his life his trade has been “intelligence and executive security. I have babysat some very famous people and travelled all over the world with them. I have also worked as a defence contractor, going into high-risk regions… getting trained and then teaching people counter-terrorism tactics.” 

Decades later, Steyn wrote a book about his life and experiences in South Africa and with the ANC and how that night changed him. The book was published in South Africa last year and is called Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who Crossed the Square.  Steyn is hoping to release it in the US at the end of 2020, “If I can find a US publisher.” He is also in the process of developing a TV series based on the book, which he is hoping to film in South Africa. 

He moved to the US after he met and did some security work for Johnnie Cochran (possibly best known internationally as the lawyer who defended OJ Simpson) in South Africa. Steyn says they “hit it off like a house on fire and he said, ‘Hey man, why don’t you come to America and look after my celebrities,’ and I was like, okay! And that’s how I ended up in America.”  

Steyn moved to the US in 1997. He has lived in LA for a number of years and done various security-related projects, including executive protection and executive protection training. He has undergone weapons competency training in the navy and was also a serious karate practitioner. He has also been trained in surveillance, counter surveillance, advance driving, defensive and offensive driving.

“There’s a variety of different skills… the use of cover… I learnt some of that with Jeremy Veary and Andre Lincoln.” 

He says that for most of his life his trade has been “intelligence and executive security. I have babysat some very famous people and travelled all over the world with them. I have also worked as a defence contractor, going into high-risk regions… getting trained and then teaching people counter-terrorism tactics.” 

When he visited South Africa in 2018 he needed a security detail after he was exposed in public as an MK veteran by an Afrikaans publication and he received death threats, “because I’m a verraaier/traitor… I betrayed my race.”

Bradley in Cape Town in 2018 (Photo: supplied)

Steyn says he was home when he heard of George Floyd’s death under the knee of policeman Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on 25 May, and in his line of work, he understood the pain and terror of Floyd’s death. When he heard of the LA Black Lives Matter protest, he joined it on Saturday 30 May. 

“We were calling for the arrest of all of the officers complicit in the death of George Floyd – subsequently they’ve been arrested – so we were marching, everybody is really peaceful, there is no kak, nothing, we get on to Third Avenue, near to the Grove in LA where all the celebrities go. We are marching down the street and there are ouens on the side that are causing kak, spray painting walls, jumping on a bus. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were proxies [sent to make trouble].” 

He says there were many teenagers around 16 to 18 years old and they were all peaceful, when all of a sudden, “I see the LA police start a skirmish line, and there’s a few of them that are just moering the hell out of people and I think maybe I should go home, then they start firing. I hide behind an engine block and I look around a corner and a photojournalist runs past and he says they are shooting rubber bullets.  

“So I get up and walk forward a bit – I want to get closer – and all of a sudden I hear more shots. Then I see this group of black teenagers running towards me with the same expressions of fear I saw on people’s faces in Strijdom Square.” 

Steyn says the faces of the terrified teenagers pushed him to get involved and he saw two police officers, “just really being violent with people and one girl had fallen over, a black girl and this white guy was trying to help her up but the police just started climbing into them and beating the hell out of them. I ran in there and tried to pick her up, tried to grab her. 

“I made physical contact with the police and a police officer hit me across the chest with a baton and I stumbled backwards. As I stumbled back a policeman about four metres away pointed his rifle at me and shot me with a rubber bullet twice, once on my thigh and one directly in the scrotum.” 

At that point, he ran until he passed out and came to with someone shaking him and asking him if he was okay. He was bleeding profusely. 

“I was in so much pain I kept passing out. I thought to myself, am I going to die in the street in Beverly Hills?”

He had been found by some teenagers who also thought he was dying. At that stage, it was difficult getting in and out of the area as the marchers were in full flight. They could not get an ambulance to come out, and eventually called an Uber – the first one did not arrive, but the second one took him to hospital. 

He had emergency surgery as his left testicle was ruptured.

“Before I went in [to surgery] they made me sign a consent form saying if they need to remove it, they will, but if they can save it, they will save it – and they managed to save most of it.” 

After his surgery on 30 May, he was considering taking legal action “against the Los Angeles Police Department and the City of Los Angeles so we can force them to make changes against the use of excessive force and violence at protests”. 

Three weeks later, standing is still painful for him and on Tuesday 23 June, Bradley confirmed to Daily Maverick that he had decided to proceed with legal action against the city of LA and the LAPD, and starts this new journey on Thursday 25 June. He plans to take on the US system and speak out against racism and the widespread use of excessive force by police.

“What I saw was unacceptable… the violence of these police officers against their citizens, against children. The violence against George Floyd, that this man had his knee on George Floyd’s neck for how long? The demilitarisation of the police in the United States needs to be first priority; the use of excessive force within law enforcement has to be addressed.” DM


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