We’ve become such an angry country, says Zelda

2014-09-18 00:00

THE woman who spent 19 years as former president Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant is worried that South Africa has become an angry society.

Zelda la Grange, author of Good Morning Mr Mandela, shared this concern when she delivered the Peter Brown Memorial Lecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg yesterday.

La Grange said she was worried people had lost respect for each other.

“We have become a very angry people. I pick this up in the media and in the social media where we attack one another. We expect people to approach us respectfully, when we were disrespectful in the first place,” she said.

According to La Grange, the main lesson she learnt from Mandela was respect. “We claim Nelson Mandela as our own, but don’t exhibit the example he set about respecting others,” she said.

La Grange said the former president taught her that one’s approach to people always had to be respectful. In this way one sets the tone of future engagements. It also stops the enemy from setting the lines of battle.

She described how she saw this at work, when Mandela had been summonsed to court by former rugby boss Louis Luyt.

“He walked over to the defence team shook their hands and greeted them. I was 24 years old at the time and I could not understand why he had spoken to the ‘enemy’. He explained that this was a court case and not a personal matter,” said La Grange.

She witnessed him neutralising the ground and preventing that defence team setting the battle lines.

Mandela also taught her courage and conviction.

“I often heard Madiba say that the struggle was not fought by one person or by one organisation. He spoke about unsung heroes like Peter Brown who followed the courage of their convictions. It is this diversity of history that enriches our culture. I am certain Madiba would be smiling down at me that I am here honouring an unsung hero,” La Grange added.

She described how she burst out crying when she first met him as a young Afrikaner civil servant. Mandela disarmed her by being polite and talking to her in Afrikaans.

This set the ground for their future engagement. “I had to find the courage to acknowledge my racism and move on.”

La Grange said a lot of people ask her how Mandela felt about corruption. She recalled an incident when he became very angry when a bodyguard took the soap from his hotel bathroom on a visit to a Middle Eastern country.

“He said he would not tolerate dishonesty. He told them that if they could steal a bar of soap they could not be trusted. He said if the soap was replaced, they would not be fired and he would never mention the incident again.

“The soap was replaced and Mandela did not mention the incident the next morning.”

For La Grange these values are Mandela’s legacy that must be passed on to future generations.

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