Insight with James Brabazon: My Friend the Mercenary

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By Sarah Gibbons

Few people can say that they were involved in one of the most infamous coup attempts in recent history, the foiled attempt to overthrow the government of Equitorial Guinea of 2004, let alone experienced civil war in Libera, marched for miles alongside its rebel leaders – and even formed an extraordinary friendship with a “gun-for-hire” arms dealer and mercenary – Nick du Toit. Yet, for James Brabazon, frontline journalist and documentary film-maker, these experiences are very real memories and an integral part of who he is today.

James Brabazon was at the Frontline Club to discuss his new book My Friend the Mercenary – an insider’s account of his unlikey friendship with Nick du Toit, and the events that led up to the mercenary’s inprisonment in the notorious Black Beach Prison.  He was joined by Andrew Mueller – rock critic, travel writer and foreign correspondent, who described James Brabazon‘s account as “beggaring belief”.

James Brabazon began by reading an exceprt from his book, which described Nick du Toit’s horrific prison experience. The planned coup d’etat failed spectacularly, largely due, as James Brabazon explained, to the comprehensive infiltration among the coup-plotters by the South African Intelligence Service; it was a “foregone conclusion of failure”.

Astonishingly, James Brabazon was meant to have been there filming the coup attempt, but pulled out at the last minute due to his Grandfather’s death. He too could have been arrested and suffered alongside his friend in prison.

This led to Andrew Mueller asking the question “at that point…was there still an extent that you felt like you should have been there?”

James Brabazon answered that he had conflicting emotions. During their time together, filming the Liberian civil war, Nick du Toit had saved his life countless times. He had even nursed him back to health after a bout of dysentry, which nearly killed him. He had gone above and beyond his role as bodyguard and even stayed with James Brabazon after he had to inform him that his production company had folded and he couldn’t be paid.

This time, Nick du Toit was alone and James Brabazon said that he felt a sense of survivor’s guilt. In a professional capacity, he had also missed a big opportunity of capturing the coup attempt on film.

Much of the discussion focused around moral questions and dilemmas. For example, James Brabazon had become good friends with rebel leaders who committed horrific acts of violence and felt genuinely sad at their deaths.

He compared working in Africa as like holding a “pig- iron” to your moral compass, leaving you unsure of right and wrong. In his view, people should not be categorised as “good” or “evil”,but rather that people did good and bad things.

One member of the audience asked whether he got de-sensitised after witnessing so many acts of violence and executions. James Brabazon re-counted the time when he was filming an execution, only to find himself adjusting th camera to get the best shot. He claimed “when you find yourself composing murder…you know you are so lost.”