Madiba’s right hand

2013-12-09 18:00

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Winnie Madikizela-­Mandela and Graça Machel are two names synonymous with the respected and admired statesman, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Madikizela-Mandela as the wife who fought alongside him in the liberation struggle; Machel as the woman who stole his heart after his release from prison.

And then there is the daughter of white apartheid often referred to as his “rock” – Zelda la Grange.

In the late 90s Afrikaans-speaking La Grange became an all too familiar figure as she rose from ­middle class obscurity to become the woman most often seen alongside Mandela in public.

Her roles were as diverse as the man hailed the world over for freeing South Africa from apartheid.

Holding his hand, whispering in his ear, accompanying him to voting booths, a travel companion, spokesperson, confidante, his right-hand woman – a simple title, Mandela’s personal assistant.

For many, including prominent ­political figures, celebrities, musicians and journalists, La Grange was the fearsome gatekeeper for anyone ­hoping to share a moment with ­Mandela.

Apart from Madikizela-Mandela and Machel, no other woman held such power over Mandela.

But who exactly was this woman who won the love and trust of a ­struggle hero who spent 27 years in jail for crimes committed against “her people”?

La Grange was born in 1970 in ­Pretoria to a middle class family. Her father was an SA Breweries executive who later ran his own butchery. Her mother was a teacher.

During interviews La Grange openly admitted that she grew up oblivious to the country’s political dynamics and was quoted as saying she was “unaware and uninterested in the political situation in the country; very comfortable in our own secluded life, very ­ordinary and very based on Calvinist Afrikaner values”.

To her, the name Mandela then purely meant a person who invoked fear among whites.

“I may have heard the name around the State of Emergency and that he was imprisoned on Robben Island – but for what, I had no idea.

“He could have stolen a car, to be honest,” she was quoted during a 2008 newspaper interview.

Her affection for and bond with Mandela happened almost by accident.

La Grange dreamt about becoming an actress and heeding her father’s ­advice that she would battle to make a living unless she was in Hollywood, the then 20-year-old studied towards an executive secretary qualification.

In August 1994 she ran into ­Mandela for the first time while ­collecting documents from his office in the Union Buildings. It was two weeks ­after she had taken up a position as a typist on the president’s personal staff.

“He started speaking Afrikaans to me .?.?. His Afrikaans was perfect, but I was in such a state that I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was shivering,” she recalled.

“I sent this man to jail.

“I was part of this, of taking a person like him, his whole life away,” was the instinctive thought that crossed her mind before she started crying.

But true to what Madiba is known for – a peacemaker extraordinaire – he took La Grange’s hand, continued to talk to her and told her: “This is not necessary, you’re overreacting a bit.”

There was an instantaneous ­connection.

A year later and La Grange became Mandela’s seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day personal assistant, jetting around the globe with him in private jets and meeting the who’s who of the world.

Over almost a decade their relationship grew to the extent that calling him “khulu” (isiXhosa for grandfather) came naturally and she started ­anticipating his responses.

And like most of the world, La Grange’s feelings for him were that of pure admiration and love.

“Absolutely,” she once responded when asked if she loved him.

But never did she overstep the boundaries and always respected him as her employer.

After Mandela retired as president in 1999, La Grange became a key figure with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where she is still involved in organising his daily schedule and public ­relations.

Her tenure with the state elder had made her a better person, as she drew strength from his ­humaneness.

She once said: ­“President (Bill) Clinton said he ­(Mandela) inspires us all to be the best human being we can possibly be, and it’s true.

“He’s definitely taught me to be respectful to every living ­creature.”

However, devoting most of her ­20s and 30s to serving one of the world’s greatest men came at a price. La Grange barely had a social life – she has three dogs but no children.

But even that was worth the sacrifice as she counted herself “blessed” to have worked with Mandela and to have been part of his life.

Lately, La Grange has refused to grant interviews about life as Mandela’s PA.

And while no human being is ­immortal, La Grange once said what many probably feel and wish for: “Thank you for being an inspiration to all of us. May you become as old as the oldest mountains. My wish for you is time.”

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