Security boss recalls Mandela in love

Capilano U instructor will attend funeral in S. Africa

Among those travelling to South Africa to mourn for Nelson Mandela on his home soil this weekend is a North Vancouver man who once pledged to take a bullet for him.

Etienne van Eck, a Capilano University instructor and North Vancouver resident, was the co-head of Mandela's security detail upon his election in 1994.

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Van Eck grew up in a small, white, sheepfarming community where black South Africans had to be out of town by late afternoon.

"As a kid, I just thought that's the way it was," he said. In retrospect, "it sounds incredible, really. How can that be?" After high school, van Eck joined the South African police academy in 1985 and was later recruited to protection services after graduation.

Van Eck has asked himself many times why we went from being a "bobby on the beat" guarding

empty presidential estates, to being assigned to the team overseeing security for the country's first black president.

"I think one of the reasons was probably my age, and that I was unattached to the past and the atrocities of Apartheid," he said.

In the spirit of sewing together what had been separated by Apartheid law, security from the African National Congress was joined with van Eck's protective services for the tense transition.

"(It was) pretty tricky.

Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Our training is totally different from the people we were amalgamated with. There was a fair measure of distrust," he said. "But at the same time, there was this massive, important job to fulfill."

As part of the team responsible for the president's safety, van Eck was present not just for the history-making speeches and appearances but also the smaller moments such as Mandela teaching children to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" everywhere he went.

"Seeing Nelson Mandela in love was very special to me," said van Eck, referring to the courtship between Mandela and his wife Graca Machel. "They'd walk in the middle of the street and we'd sort of melt away into the shadows and just give him space and he'd reach over and take her hand and they'd hold hands. I was some distance behind, just watching Nelson Mandela walking with the love of his life," van Eck said.

Living up to his manof-the-people reputation, Mandela could be a bit of a handful to watch, frequently opting to hop out of his presidential motorcade to mix with locals or taking off for his morning walk before the security team arrived.

Mandela was every bit as warm and genuine in a small room as he appeared in the media, van Eck said, taking time to get to know everyone on his staff. When van Eck's wife died in an accident shortly after moving to Canada in 2000, Mandela called to offer support.

"One of the things he said was 'You have courage to turn this tragedy into triumph,'" van Eck recalled.

Van Eck was at his office when the news broke Friday that Mandela had died.

"We all knew this day would come, but I (was) stunned. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to feel," he said. "I remember feeling lonely, like something was gone from the world."

While it was difficult, van Eck said he found some solace in seeing his old boss's face beaming on TV newscasts, and took heart when he saw black South Africans not just mourning but dancing in the streets and celebrating Mandela's life.

"I think everybody in their most pleasant dreams wished this is the way Nelson Mandela would go - as an old man, out of office, out of public life," he said.

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