Mandela's honorary granddaughter opens up

2013-12-09 18:35
Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela (Foto24)

Zelda la Grange and Nelson Mandela (Foto24)

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Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela's long-time private assistant and "honorary granddaughter" spoke on Monday of her deep love for the man who changed her life forever, though at great personal cost.

Zelda la Grange, who came from Afrikaner middle-class obscurity to become Madiba’s right-hand, spoke to 702 Talk Radio of her love for the man she called "Khulu”.

The pressure was relentless, she said - following Mandela around the world, organising his every move and shielding him from the never-ending stream of people clamouring for a moment in his presence.

But she would never have swapped the experience for a chance at a regular family life.

"I deeply loved him," La Grange said during the interview.

"I don't think you are ever prepared enough," she said of his death on Thursday at the age of 95.

"You are still shocked and saddened when the time comes. We had prepared ourselves emotionally, but still we are overcome by this feeling of loss and sadness."

In the latter part of his presidency - which ran from 1994 to 1999 - and thereafter, La Grange became a regular feature by Mandela's side.

Her devotion surprised some.

She has been widely hailed in recent days for her loyalty to Mandela.

"We owe our gratitude to her," Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Sunday.

"She sacrificed her youth, her time. I don't think she had a boyfriend. It's time for us to express grateful appreciation."

But La Grange said she felt uncomfortable with the use of the word "sacrifice".

"You cannot use 'sacrifice', 'Nelson Mandela' and 'Zelda la Grange' in the same sentence," she said.

"My sacrifice is something I missed maybe as a result of working so hard, [it] can never be compared to what Mandela gave."

Learning humility

The experience, though often draining, was a privilege that taught her humility, La Grange said. "I'd never want to have things differently," she said.

La Grange said she had stopped visiting her former boss a few months ago as it became unbearable to witness his deterioration.

"I wanted to remember him the way I knew him," she said.

"It was a difficult time, but I must tell you every time I went over the last few months I made sure I said what I wanted to say and that gave me some comfort: I said what needed to be said."

Mandela, who nicknamed her "Zeldina", had been an inspiring and patient boss, said La Grange.

"Madiba was the easiest person to work with, the best teacher, a mentor," she said.

And she urged South Africans to study and emulate Mandela's legacy.

"We feel very emotional now because we've lost him, but it is also a time to be reminded right now how important it is to really study that legacy and to implement those values and morals ... and then we can achieve the South Africa that we all dream of."

- Friends, colleagues, comrades and family of Nelson Mandela are invited to share their memories and tributes, and to light a candle for him, on his profile at

- Share your memories of Nelson Mandela with us.

Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  zelda la grange  |  johannesburg

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