Newsmaker – Zelda la Grange moves on

2014-06-22 15:00

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" I don’t know what I will do next?…?I just know that whatever I do must be something peaceful, like selling beautiful flowers from a little shop somewhere.”

Zelda la Grange, former president Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant, doesn’t hide her emotions when talking about the adjustment she’s had to make now that her life does not revolve around her former “boss” and beloved, self-appointed honorary grandfather.

She spoke to City Press on the eve of the much-anticipated worldwide launch of her memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela.

Things have changed a great deal for La Grange since 2012 when Mandela’s health started declining rapidly and her work in his office began scaling back.

“It has been a complete turnaround – professionally and personally – to go from being so busy, constantly pumping with adrenaline, to this?…?I’ve felt as if I have been shutting down,” she said.

“It has been a really difficult and emotional adjustment. There have been times when I’ve felt I have lost my purpose. I’ve had to do some serious soul searching on what my future contribution to the world will be.”

The book, she said, played a huge role in this. “I learnt so much about myself in that process.”

La Grange was born in Pretoria in 1970 into a typically conservative white South African family that voted for the National Party and attended the Dutch Reformed Church.

Her father worked as an executive for South African ­Breweries and later acquired a butchery. Her mother was a teacher.

In an interview with journalist John Carlin some years ago she described the day Mandela was released in 1990. She was in the swimming pool and her father came out and said: “Now we are in trouble?…?the terrorist is being freed.”

She says she was “completely naïve”.

“I had never thought deeply about politics. My upbringing excluded discussions about politics. I didn’t hear Nelson Mandela’s name before 1990. That’s how ignorant and uninformed I was. We were brought up in a racist society and lived apartheid without questioning it.”

Although she hoped to be an actress, her parents encouraged her to study.

She qualified as an executive secretary and took up a position as a typist in the state expenditure department.

In 1994 she applied for a position as a typist in the economics department of the president’s office, but ended up being offered a job with Mandela’s private secretary, Mary Mxadana, and became a typist on the president’s personal staff.

In the interview with Carlin she related how, in August 1994, a few weeks after starting the job, she bumped into Mandela for the first time and he started speaking perfect Afrikaans to her.

Overcome by emotion, she started crying and Mandela took her hand and spoke to her.

A few months later she went into Mandela’s office with a tray of tea and he told her he wanted her to go with him to Japan. She told him she was sorry, but she did not have enough money. Mandela explained that it would not be for her own account. La Grange went to Japan where, for the first time, she met heads of state and other VIPs.

After the trip Mandela called on her increasingly to do work for him, writing letters and taking notes at meetings.

The real work began when she was asked to accompany Mandela – as his only secretary – on his state visit to France in 1996.

From then on she started going everywhere with him, from visits to small Afrikaans communities to state visits around the world.

Soon La Grange was appointed assistant private secretary to Mandela, who would sometimes work right through the night. She became the aide who could track down anyone in the world within minutes and, later, private secretary in the office of the president.

So why did Mandela choose this politically ignorant, white Afrikaans woman for such a huge role?

“My mother says my sense of humour had something to do with it. I tend to see the humour in everything.

“But I think it was because he saw my dedication and loyalty to him. I mean, I was a typist when he invited me to Japan.

“He probably noticed that I was, by nature, very hard ­working. I come from a family where everyone is obsessive compulsive – and that really helped me in the job.

“He would have seen me paying attention to detail in everything. If I could plot milliseconds and nanoseconds, I would have done that. Everything had to be orderly, militaristic. He saw that in my nature.

“But I also think he saw the Afrikaner in me and the potential for the reconciliation message it would send to the world if he included me – this young Afrikaner boere meisie – in his inner circle. I’ve accepted that and am proud about it.”

As to how her association with Mandela affected her family, she said: “My parents have always been very humble, grounded people. They were like that 20 years ago when I first started working for Mr Mandela. It was not as if they changed their lifestyle in any way.

“But it did change their thinking about South Africa and the world and how they relate to people.

“My mother has always been the kindest, sweetest person. My dad, although he is very conservative?…?I have noticed how he treats people differently. He speaks to all people with respect and without prejudice. Mandela’s presence in my life changed my entire environment. That was the power of ­Mandela.”

Her parents met Mandela about five times during the years she worked for him. “My dad planted some trees on his farm in Qunu. He was very appreciative?…?but they were not familiar with each other. It was not as if they were house friends.”

In 1999, when Mandela was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, he remained active in public life, mainly through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

La Grange became executive personal assistant and spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, remaining the main gatekeeper to Mandela and his inner circle.

When Mandela retired from public life in 2004 her workload decreased, but she still managed his schedule.

But since his illness and death in December things have changed – and keep changing.

“Madiba’s prolonged illness made me realise it is no use having long-term plans. Life will take you where you are meant to be. Right now I don’t know what will happen next.

“I am still doing some work for the foundation, including working on a follow-up to the book, Long Walk to Freedom. I am committed to giving them whatever they need to complete that for historical purposes.

“I will also continue to do Bikers for Mandela every year. So, as to what’s next, I don’t know. I will just let life take its course.”

She remains close to Graça Machel, a woman she clearly adores. “Her greatness?…?is something we as South Africans have not even started realising. We have not even started putting value to her life and to what she meant to Mr Mandela, and the huge contribution she made to our history.

“I will always remain close to her. I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks because of work and last week I woke up and realised I was missing her like I miss my mother sometimes.

“So I called her and said: ‘Mum, I know you’re busy, but can I just come and sit with you?’

“I just wanted to be there while she went about doing her own thing. Madiba called her ‘Mum’ and we all just followed.”

What of the personal sacrifices involved in working for the busiest man in the country? Did La Grange struggle to forge proper relationships or have a life outside her job?

“Some people may see it like that but, having worked so closely with him and having learnt what his contributions to our country were – and what sacrifices he made for us – I do not think my name can be mentioned in the same sentence as ‘sacrifice’ and ‘Nelson Mandela’.

“Any sacrifices I might have made are totally irrelevant compared with the sacrifices he made. To have the opportunity?…?I am sure you would have done exactly the same.”

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