'He's like my grandfather'

2009-05-20 20:05
Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela (Foto24)

Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela (Foto24)

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Johannesburg - "Madiba and I are like grandfather and granddaughter."

He referred to her as Zeldina, but she had come a long way since former president Nelson Mandela was "a terrorist" in her eyes.

At the height of international campaigns for Mandela's release in the turbulent eighties, Zelda la Grange was still at Hoërskool Overkruin in Pretoria.

La Grange was blissfully unaware of these campaigns, but the message that the apartheid government was spreading deliberately in white South Africa, did not escape her.

"In all honesty, I just knew there was a terrorist or a communist in prison and that it would mean the end of the country if he were released," says La Grange, who became Mandela's spokesperson and personal assistant.

"The influence of 'my world' brought an ingrained hatred, subconsciously, for the man and what he stood for, even though I did not know precisely what that entailed."

Irrational fear

La Grange is also not sure where she was the day when Mandela - the scapegoat "terrorist" who later became her boss - was released.

"I just know that my dad remarked: 'Now we're in trouble' - and I immediately felt an irrational fear."

She describes her education and youth as protected, strongly Calvinistic and happy. "I had more proper hidings than I can remember, though my parents might say, still too few."

On her father's advice, she took an unwitting decision that would bring her a step closer to become one of Madiba's confidantes. She wanted to study drama, but he persuaded her that unless one was a top stage performer it was difficult to survive in acting.

"He advised me to first do something that I could fall back on, and then go and study drama if I still wanted to. My father is a very realistic person and although I don't like his advice 80% of the time, once again, he knew better."

The result was a diploma in executive secretarial work at the then Pretoria Technikon, and a few years later she jumped at the chance when a typist's post came up in the Presidency.

Unconditional respect

This was where she first bumped into Madiba one day.

"I was on my way to the private secretary's office and the president was on his way out. We bumped into each other and he inevitably began to chat. I just answered the questions politely and was very afraid of the tall black man. He put me at ease with his friendly chatting and the unreserved way in which he shook my hand."

In 1996 La Grange moved closer to Madiba when she was promoted to one of his private assistant secretaries, and when he left office in 1999, he could retain the services of one of his personal staff.

"Completely undeservedly, he asked me to tackle his first attempt at retirement with him."

La Grange described her relationship with Madiba later as that of a grandfather with his granddaughter, "but like it used to be between them in the old days - with unconditional respect". It was within this context that the "grandfather" had a huge influence on his "granddaughter's" life.

"From childhood, I've never been lukewarm about anything. I am either for something or against it, and if I have made my mind up, I stand by it absolutely - with typical Afrikaner stubbornness.

"I very quickly realised I'd get nowhere in the "new" Union Buildings with my conservative values. So I began to ask questions. Unfortunately I was not a very questioning child, and the stream of life led me to accept what was right or wrong, according to society.

"I was raised in a conservative environment in which black people were dangerous, a lower social class, and they were all terrorists! I remember we always used to pray for the people 'behind the iron curtain'. As a child I asked where this curtain was and what it meant. The answer was that it referred to people who were persecuted under communism and that a communist was the most dangerous kind of person you could possibly meet.

"Shortly after I began working in the president's office in 1994 I was shocked when I read the ANC's Freedom Charter. They had already been striving in the 1950s for a non-sexist, non-racist society in which everyone could live together in freedom.

"I was completely confused and asked whether this was the reason that Mr Mandela went to jail? The answer, shortly, unfortunately, was 'yes'."

An indelible impression

"It made me realise that in spite of the fact that I was white, there was a place for me in the new South Africa, if these were the principles the new governing party had fought for.

"I wasn't bold enough to speak to the president about it at that stage, but my situation made it easy for me to talk to others about it.

"Someone who left an indelible impression on me because of the trouble that he took to explain things to me was the late Parks Mankahlana (Mandela's spokesperson at the time). I also spoke to people like Oom Beyers Naudé to get a better understanding of things.

"From the president's actions, I quickly realised that the values of the Freedom Charter were also his own values, and that if you showed respect to your fellow humans you could resolve any disputes."

In a more practical way Mandela was also a determining factor in Zelda's life.

"What happens at the office, or what happens daily in my life is determined by what Madiba wants to do, where he is and what he's busy with. Few days are the same and it's difficult to describe a typical day.

"At one stage, I must admit, I spent 80% of my day just repeating and explaining his message of June 1 2001, that he had retired, no longer attended functions and was not interested in considering proposals or projects, or to endorse anything. That was a bit frustrating, I must admit."

La Grange said Mandela's sense of humour remained one of his most outstanding traits for her. Once he had retired for the second time and was more relaxed, it became even better and sharper.

La Grange's ability to laugh, also at her own foibles, was clearly something La Grange shared with Madiba. She tells the story of when she fell out of a stationary helicopter en route to the state banquet for former US president Bill Clinton, during his state visit to South Africa.

"My evening dress got snagged on the railing of the helicopter's steps and while I was on my way down, the dress remained behind. I fell flat on my face right behind Madiba and Graca Machel.

"Madiba was busy speaking to me and turned around to make eye contact. When he looked for me at eye level, I was on the ground gazing up. There weren't many people to help me up because those present had been carried far away by their laughter.

"Madiba said 'Help her' to a few bystanders and to me 'Did you damage your dress' I didn't know what was funnier - his remark, or my ego that had taken such a beating."

Some might have found it strange that a young white Afrikaans woman became Madiba's right hand in his latter years. How did she respond?

"You don't want to know - she began. "At first I found it amusing that it should fascinate people. Later it irritated me. If we want to move forward in this country, the first thing we must do is stop classifying people.

"Madiba didn't see people's skin colour, and I learnt from him to look for something deeper in every person. The fact that I'm white or any other colour was really irrelevant

"What angers me now is the near-fascination and the fuss people still make of it, because it means that people still haven't accepted that we're all just South Africans, white, or black, or whatever colour or faith."

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  zelda la grange

RIP Nelson Mandela

2013-12-06 08:36


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