/ 28 January 2009

Burundian peace facilitator Jan van Eck dies

Burundian peace facilitator, Jan van Eck, died of a heart attack on Tuesday at the Constantia Medi Clinic in Cape Town, the SABC reported.

Van Eck’s wife, Eunice, said he collapsed at their home on Monday with chest pains.

She said her husband’s death came as a surprise to the family as he was given a clean bill of health three months ago.

Van Eck was 65.

”He was the most genuine man I knew, he was honest to the core, you always knew where you stood with him,” Eunice said.

”Just his passion for his country and his passion for his job … if there was a crisis in Burundi, he was on the next plane, and he never knew when he was going to come back … and when he was home, he was always on the phone, he was almost possessed … there had to be peace in Burundi,” she said.

Van Eck was born in Holland on December 18 1943, the first born of five children.

He came to South Africa when he was five years old with his father, a teacher of classical piano, and his mother, a housewife.

He matriculated at Bonnievale High School in 1961, after which he studied at the University of Stellenbosch, obtaining a BA degree majoring in geography and history in 1964, a secondary teachers’ diploma in 1965 and a BA (Hons) in geography in 1965.

It was at university that he started to seriously challenge his National Party upbringing and joined the (then) Progressive Party.

When he joined the Progressive Party, Colin Eglin asked him to take the party’s views into the Afrikaans areas. Van Eck concentrated on students. He did this in his capacity as founder-editor of the Progressive Party’s Afrikaans journal Deurbraak (meaning ”breakthrough”).

Until 1985, Van Eck held the positions of national public relations officer, national director of publications and editor of various publications for the then Progressive Reform Party (PRP) and the Progressive Federal Party (PFP).

In 1974 and 1977 he stood unsuccessfully as, respectively, a parliamentary candidate and a provincial council candidate for the Progs. During his time as a party employee he married Eunice, who was then working as national secretary of the PRP.

He was elected to the Provincial Council for the PFP in Groote Schuur in 1981, and became a PFP MP for Rondebosch in a 1986 by-election. He worked as a city councillor for Cape Town from 1985 to 1988.

In 1987 Van Eck was re-elected unopposed as MP for Claremont.

He resigned from the PFP in August 1987 and remained as an independent in Parliament.

In 1989 Van Eck joined the newly formed Democratic Party and in 1992 he joined the ANC together with four other Democratic Party MPs.

More recently, he was the sole consultant to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), heading the Political Dialogue Project in Burundi — which is jointly funded by the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the Swedish International Development Agency, based at the ISS.

The object of the project is to contribute towards reconciliation, ongoing and inclusive negotiations, the search for home-grown compromise solutions and the progressive development of a democratic culture among Burundians.

According to the ISS website, over the past nine years, Van Eck’s role in Burundi was described as: ”What was in the beginning, a relatively-speaking passive, ‘listening’ one, to that of a resource person on conflict resolution and negotiations, and more recently that of an active, though informal, independent peace facilitator.”

He succeeded in developing both the necessary degree of trust and perceived neutrality among almost all the political role-players, regardless of their ethnic, political or military affiliation.

This enabled him to play a significant role in brokering dialogue, building confidence and breaking down political and ethnic stereotypes.

It also helped him in getting closer to the real truth regarding the fears, concerns and objectives of the different and opposing parties than most other international players.

His success was due primarily to a style of facilitation that was discreet, empathetic, non-prescriptive and non-partisan.

Van Eck was also recently named a ”Paul Harris Fellow” by the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International ”in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world”.

He is survived by his wife and two children. — Sapa