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A bodyguard's view of Nelson Mandela Add to ...

JOHANNESBURG - Everyone knows the legend of Nelson Mandela: the man who saved South Africa from civil war, the man who is regarded today as a living saint, who endured 27 years in prison and emerged with forgiveness in his heart.

But what kind of man was this living saint for those who worked nearest to him - the humble bodyguards who spent countless hours at his side?

I got a glimpse into the human side of this legend from someone I met while I was researching a story on Invictus, the new Clint Eastwood movie about Mr. Mandela's strategy of reconciliation during the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

The glimpse came from a man named Etienne van Eck, a former policeman who had served as a bodyguard to Mr. Mandela from 1994 to 1999.

Globe reporter Ian Bailey had spotted him at an Invictus screening in Vancouver last week, and put me in contact with him. The former bodyguard, now living in Canada, sent me a long and eloquent e-mail, and we later talked by telephone. He convinced me that the Mandela legend was equally authentic among those who saw him at close quarters every day.

Mr. van Eck remembers the fears of his own people - the Afrikaners - when apartheid ended and the black majority won power. Many were ready to flee. He remembers how Mr. Mandela calmed those fears and convinced the Afrikaners that they had an important role in the post-apartheid nation. He was "the most remarkable leader of our time," Mr. van Eck says. "To say that I treasure my time with President Mandela as a profound privilege would be to understate how I cherish that experience and the memories of my time with him. He changed me."

He told me the story of how Mr. Mandela had amalgamated two mutually suspicious groups of bodyguards - blacks from the African National Congress and whites from the former apartheid police force - into an effective unit that learned to overcome their mistrust and work closely together. "We grew to be friends, teaching one another important lessons," he said.

He told me how Mr. Mandela had toiled to learn every nuance of Afrikaans, a language he had studied from the warders at Robben Island prison, even though it was the language of his oppressors. Once he was planning to address a group of farmers in South Africa and wanted to speak to them in Afrikaans, their language. He asked Mr. van Eck for help in translating his speech into Afrikaans. But when speaking to the farmers, he chose to address them with the most respectful and formal Afrikaans term for "you" - even though his bodyguard had suggested that a less formal word would have been acceptable.

On another day, Mr. Mandela was attending the wedding of Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks rugby team. He left his home too early, so Mr. van Eck quietly detoured and took a longer route to the wedding to ensure that they would arrive on time. "The president always stressed punctuality," the bodyguard said. "It was all about respect for one's host."

Nine years ago, shortly after they arrived in Vancouver, Mr. van Eck suffered the death of his wife. He received a phone call of sympathy and condolences from Mr. Mandela. "I know you have the courage to turn tragedy into triumph," he told his former bodyguard.

Reflecting on those words today, Mr. van Eck mused: "The world knows he has done exactly that."

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