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Andrew Schofield was on Nelson Mandela's security detail in South Africa from 1990 to 1994. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Andrew Schofield was on Nelson Mandela's security detail in South Africa from 1990 to 1994. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

B.C. man reflects on protecting Nelson Mandela during tense era Add to ...

The year was 1991 or 1992. Nelson Mandela, not yet president, had flown into a small airport outside of Durban, the largest city in South Africa. Andrew Schofield, then a teacher in his late 20s, was a member of the security detail assigned to take Mr. Mandela into town, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference of democratic lawyers. But between them were “crowds of white racists, ready to burn his car,” recalled Mr. Schofield, today vice-principal at an East Vancouver secondary school.

“We had to extract Mandela from that environment … and I was part of the vehicle security team,” Mr. Schofield said Friday from his office in Vancouver. “Driving and getting him out of there without getting him killed was one of the more difficult times we had as a unit.”

The armed unit led Mr. Mandela to a side gate near the end of the runway, Mr. Schofield said. But positioned there were white police officers who initially refused to let the men pass.

“We had to negotiate with these racist police and tell them this was not something we needed, to have a bloodbath, which we were quite prepared to have to get Mandela out and get him safe,” Mr. Schofield said. “We said, ‘You don’t want to do this.’ We looked a guy straight in the eyes and said, ‘You want to step aside. You want to open those gates and you want to do it now, otherwise there’s going to be an international incident and it’s going to be on your shoulders.’”

The officer opened the gates.

Mr. Schofield, born and raised in South Africa, remembers well the bitter division of his home country. He credits his mother, an early member of the liberal Progressive Party and a founding member of the End Conscription Campaign, for instilling in him a strong moral sense.

“In school, I was known as the lover of black people and so I would get teased for it,” Mr. Schofield said. “I would get beaten around and kicked around, but whatever, you know? It happened and it didn’t change anything.”

Later, Mr. Schofield travelled to British Columbia, where he earned a masters degree in political and economic geography at Simon Fraser University. It was in Vancouver, through an anti-apartheid network, that he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Back in South Africa, Mr. Schofield became a teacher and an executive in the African National Congress’s uMngeni-north branch, the latter being the reason he was selected to be part of Mr. Mandela’s security detail. When Mr. Mandela would come to town, Mr. Schofield would get a call, on short notice, and be told where to go. He did this from 1990 to 1994.

He does not recall being particularly afraid, recognizing that even on his most difficult days, he was in a position of privilege as a white South African.

“I, at least, could go back to my middle-class house with running water and electricity and all the rest of it,” he said. “Many of my comrades couldn’t do that, and so I was still aware that my relative safety was quite different from that of the other people that I worked with.”

Mr. Schofield never spoke, or even shook hands, with the man who would become a global anti-apartheid icon. “That wasn’t my job,” Mr. Schofield said. “My job was to keep him safe, watch him and keep my eyes out for everyone else around him.”

Mr. Schofield eventually moved back to Vancouver and became a Canadian citizen. He learned of Mr. Mandela’s death on Thursday while in his office at Britannia Secondary.

“I thought, how poignant and ironic that this great soul passes and I am in an environment with such great people,” he said. “My work colleagues are such great, great, great people that their souls are equal to Mandela’s, which is exactly what Mandela would want us to learn from his life – that we are equal and we are unique and we are beautiful.”

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