Nelson Mandela and Zelda la Grange © Alet van Huyssteen & the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Memories of Mandela

30th July 2014

For 19 years, Zelda La Grange was personal assistant, ally and close personal friend of Nelson Mandela, arguably the most enviable position anybody has ever held in public office. La Grange started working for Mandela at just 23-years-old and served him from his election in 1994 as the first democratically elected president of a post-apartheid South Africa, until his death, aged 95, in December 2013. Like many, she followed the journey of Mandela with both a personal and professional investment in his efforts. Unlike most, however, she got to know the man behind the legend.

Al Gordon meets her…

Zelda la Grange • picture: Nick Boulton

Zelda La Grange’s journey from self-confessed “conservative supporter of apartheid” to the “rock” of the most respected public figure of the 20th century is now documented in her book, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, which recalls her experience of working for the great man, capturing everything from the mundane day-to-day routine of her job to the close personal relationship they shared.

As white South Africans, La Grange’s own parents were suspicious when she started working for Mandela, but over the course of her years of service to the freedom fighter, Mandela earned their trust – and La Grange earned his friendship.

Far from a salacious warts-and-all exposé aiming to cash-in on his passing, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela is a touching portrait of the real man behind the public persona. “The impact this man had on my life was so huge, I have an obligation to share the life lessons that I learned from him from my perspective,” La Grange says. “I’ve been so privileged and honoured, but it’s really an obligation for me to share the person I knew with the rest of the world.”

For La Grange, this meant not raking over the major events that have dominated Mandela’s life, but rather, attempting to present a side to the former president that only those within his inner circle knew about. “As a politician, people knew the strategist, they knew the world leader, but they didn’t know the human being. They didn’t know the humour behind the person, the teasing, how he reacted to people in simple situations, what his challenges were. And these are things I can share”.

This is a particularly pressing point for La Grange; she is at pains to stress that, although elevated to saint-like status by the world, Mandela never saw himself that way. “He repeatedly said it, in that very famous quote of his that; ‘if you consider me a saint, then a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying’. And that really explains it all. He was a wonderful human being but he always wanted to remind people of his vices and virtues.”

Away from Mandela’s own words, La Grange paints a realistic picture of South Africa’s champion. “He was very stubborn, but as human beings we choose not to see another person’s shortcomings. So we as a public also elevated him to the saintly status, but Mandela constantly brought us back to that quote”.

La Grange was able to visit parliaments worldwide through her work with Mandela. Not every personal assistant gets so close to Mr and Mrs Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, or Tony Blair, and the La Grange I meet appreciates the power of her position. Fondly nicknamed ‘Zeldina’ by Mandela after a state visit to Russia in 1999 whereupon he learned that President Boris Yeltsin’s wife was named Yeltsina, La Grange remembers her employer as a strong, stubborn and selfless man. The two would communicate in Afrikaans to keep important conversations private; she was his confidante.

Her book contains some moving intimate details, such as the effect that Mandela’s 27-year jail term, largely spent in torture by his apartheid oppressors, had on his life upon his release in 1990. “He often recited stories in his everyday life. It overshadowed a lot of discussions for him – 27 years is a long time.” The book also reveals how prison affected Mandela in ways people perhaps wouldn’t expect.

“He actually said sometimes in the later years that he missed prison. I would say, ‘how could you think that?’ but he would say that at least in prison he had time to think. He was so overwhelmed by the world, he found it very difficult to have quiet time to just think and contemplate things.”

As one of the last century’s most inspirational figures, Mandela’s wisdom is unquestionable. So what is the one life lesson that La Grange has brought away from her near two-decades of loyal service?

Mandela’s right-hand woman is quick to answer. “That forgiveness is a choice. He had to decide if he was going to forgive. That was the greatest gift of Nelson Mandela. To see him operate over the years, you learn that he always made the peaceful choice. He always allowed the good in him to be victorious over the bad. He always said to me that there is good and bad in every human being, and he always made his choices based on the goodness within himself, the humanitarian part of his heart.”

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