Zelda la Grange on keep­ing the legacy alive

Sunday Times - - Front Page - By SUE DE GROOT

Zelda la Grange has spent a lot of her life in air­ports. Dur­ing the 19 years in which she was Nel­son Man­dela’s per­sonal as­sis­tant, she ac­com­pa­nied him on more trips than she can re­mem­ber.

When he was pres­i­dent, there were count­less for­eign vis­its and lo­cal events. Af­ter he left of­fice, their al­ready in­tense trav­el­ling sched­ule stepped up a notch. With his sup­port staff re­duced to just La Grange, Man­dela cir­cled the globe rais­ing funds for South Africa. She was his gate­keeper, or­gan­iser, pro­tec­tor and helper.

It is four and a half years since he died but La Grange still spends many hours in air­ports. Since the pub­li­ca­tion of her mem­oir, Good Morn­ing, Mr

Man­dela, she has been in con­stant de­mand to tell her story to all sorts of peo­ple in all sorts of places.

She has just come from a cor­po­rate speak­ing en­gage­ment in Jo­han­nes­burg and has time to chat over cof­fee while wait­ing for a plane to Cape Town, where she will re­sume work on Bik­ers for Man­dela Day, which takes up three months of her year.

This an­nual char­ity event keeps her busy dur­ing Man­dela’s birth month but to­day she is in a som­bre mood. July is al­ways painful and the cen­te­nary hype has made her even more aware of his ab­sence.

Peo­ple are con­stantly ask­ing her what he would have thought about things, she says, and while she does not feel qual­i­fied to an­swer, she knew him well enough to pre­dict some of his re­ac­tions.

One thing of which she is sure: he would have hated so­cial me­dia.

“I don’t see Madiba hav­ing fit­ted into this so­ci­ety. I think he would strug­gle with peo­ple not lis­ten­ing, not think­ing things through prop­erly. Ev­ery­one knew how he would re­ally study any­thing be­fore mak­ing the best-in­formed de­ci­sion he could. We don’t do that any­more. We ask the com­puter.”

Dur­ing Man­dela’s pres­i­dency, one of La Grange’s many tasks was to go through the thou­sands and thou­sands of let­ters they re­ceived. E-mail be­came a fac­tor only to­wards the end of his term and she is grate­ful that there was no Twit­ter or Face­book to con­tend with then.

“Cell­phones were in­tro­duced when he was in of­fice and that was hard to keep up with,” she says. “But the pace at which we live now — no per­son of

100 years old could func­tion like you and I do and he would be no dif­fer­ent. I think peo­ple with the older mindset re­ally strug­gle, yet the most valu­able lessons come from those peo­ple.”

La Grange gives two main pre­sen­ta­tions, one about per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and the other, the one ev­ery­one al­ways wants to hear, about her life with Man­dela.

“Peo­ple still want to know: ‘How did you end up get­ting the job work­ing for Madiba?’ So I take them through my life story and high­light the lessons I have learnt about dis­ci­pline, re­spect and in­tegrity. It’s about the val­ues and the prin­ci­ples that he stood for and what he fought for, and how achiev­able it is for us to go back to those things, and how im­por­tant it is for us to do that.

“I al­ways ham­mer on about how re­spect was ev­ery­thing to Madiba. For me, that was where his great­ness lay. He could re­spect me, the wait­ress, the CEO . . . all equally. He com­mu­ni­cated with ev­ery­one on equal grounds.”

Those who knew him have an obli­ga­tion to keep his true legacy alive, she says, par­tic­u­larly in the face of at­tempts to dis­credit him.

“I don’t think any­one will suc­ceed in tar­nish­ing Madiba’s legacy, but whether they are do­ing it be­cause they are frus­trated with the cur­rent gov­ern­ment or not, it is so un­fair to even try. They did not know first-hand the per­son who was re­leased af­ter 27 years in prison, and what dam­age was done to that per­son who de­spite it all still tried to do the best for his peo­ple and the best for his coun­try. He was a spe­cial, spe­cial hu­man be­ing. To try and take that away from him or to try and find an easy so­lu­tion by blam­ing him for ev­ery­thing that’s wrong now — that is un­fair.”

She gets the “sell­out” ques­tion a lot from young peo­ple lately, she says. They also ask what Man­dela might have said about cor­rup­tion and other is­sues plagu­ing South Africa.

“I tell them to read,” she says. “If you want to know what he would have said, study him. I’m not talk­ing about my book, I mean all the great books by him and about him, like Long Walk to Free­dom, Con­ver­sa­tions with My­self, Pris­oner in the Gar­den . . . All the records are there. The an­swers are there. If you re­ally feel so pas­sion­ate about find­ing so­lu­tions and think­ing what his guid­ance would be, learn from his ex­pe­ri­ences.”

She does won­der some­times what her life might have been like had she not been picked as Man­dela’s aide.

“I do think about that, espe­cially now. The fur­ther we move away from that time the more sur­real the ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes for me and I have to ask my­self: ‘Did this re­ally hap­pen?’

“When I think about that I see my­self in a day job, liv­ing a very or­di­nary life, but I know what­ever I might have done I would have worked very hard at it and in a small way made a suc­cess of it.

“I still can’t imag­ine my­self be­ing mar­ried and hav­ing the chil­dren I wanted . . . The prob­lem is that I like the busy life, I like the run­ning around. The adren­a­line al­most be­comes ad­dic­tive. But ja, life could have been very dif­fer­ent. I’m sure I would have been sat­is­fied be­cause I wouldn’t have known any­thing else.”

Af­ter su­per­vis­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of Bik­ers for Man­dela Day do­na­tions (this year the main re­cip­i­ents are teenage girls who will be given san­i­tary pads so they do not miss school ev­ery month), La Grange will be back on the speak­ing cir­cuit. It’s how she makes a liv­ing, but not all en­gage­ments are to pay the bills. She works with the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion in the US and does some pro bono work to ben­e­fit the Nel­son Man­dela Foun­da­tion. She has a talk com­ing up at the

Univer­sity of Ghent in Bel­gium and an­other at an Afrikaans fes­ti­val in Am­s­ter­dam.

“Madiba al­ways said to me: ‘You must know your roots, you must know where you come from, where your fore­fa­thers came from. You will feel solid and grounded when you do.’ I have learnt that this is my cul­ture and my his­tory and my lan­guage. In some ways it is the bag­gage I carry but I don’t have to give up what I am, my her­itage. I can try to em­body the best of what I stand for.

“Some­times I feel like the mod­er­ate, think­ing Afrikan­ers are get­ting fewer and fewer, but then I re­alise I’m only think­ing that be­cause I’m on so­cial me­dia too much. And so­cial me­dia is not re­al­ity.

“We can have an as­sim­i­lated so­ci­ety and you can be proud of your own cul­ture with­out be­ing of­fen­sive to any­one else. This is where I al­ways hear Madiba’s words: ‘hu­man­ity over ide­ol­ogy’. I say those words ev­ery day. We are re­spon­si­ble as South Africans to keep in­tact what he stood for. The cen­te­nary is an im­por­tant time to bring peo­ple back to his morals and his val­ues.”

Think­ing of the cen­te­nary puts her in mind of past birth­day cel­e­bra­tions. La Grange’s mood lifts and her eyes sparkle with laugh­ter.

“He loved birthdays, loved them. In his hum­ble way he knew that all the at­ten­tion cen­tred on him for the day and ev­ery­one had to come and visit, whether they wanted to or not, and he loved see­ing all the peo­ple be­cause he loved peo­ple.

“He loved peo­ple to sing to him on the phone. He was a bit tone-deaf but he would al­ways join in loudly: ‘Happy birth­day to me!’ He loved the cer­e­mony of the oc­ca­sion, the hap­pi­ness it brought out in peo­ple. Those are spe­cial mem­o­ries.”

An­other qual­ity she likes to re­mem­ber is

Man­dela’s con­sis­tency.

“He took a con­sis­tent ap­proach to ev­ery­thing, that’s why he be­came so pre­dictable in cer­tain things. It was good be­cause you knew where you stood with him, you knew his bound­aries.

“If he gave you money to go and buy a news­pa­per, you knew to bring back the change to the cent, be­cause he would check it. Not that he was stingy or didn’t trust you, it was just his way and you knew that about him. Peo­ple also knew never to try and pass any­thing by him that could be re­motely un­eth­i­cal. He wasn’t one way in gov­ern­ment and an­other way in his pri­vate life. He was the same per­son.”

La Grange was present dur­ing thou­sands of in­ter­views in which Man­dela would be asked the same ques­tions, to which he would al­ways give the same an­swers.

“So many peo­ple said ‘You are the hero of South Africa’ and he would al­ways say: ‘No, there’s not one hero, it was a col­lec­tive.’ I heard him asked in a hun­dred thou­sand in­ter­views over the years: ‘How would you want to be re­mem­bered?’ And not once in 19 years did I hear him an­swer any­thing else but this: ‘I would want to leave it to peo­ple to de­cide for them­selves how they want to re­mem­ber me.’ ”

It is time for La Grange to board a plane and carry on with her life, which she runs with no as­sis­tant of her own to help her plan or pack. She will be back for the Man­dela cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions and is happy that for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama is giv­ing the key­note speech.

“It’s spe­cial that so many of Madiba’s old friends from around the world are com­ing,” she says. “He would en­joy see­ing them. Ev­ery morn­ing when he greeted me he would say: ‘Oh Zel­d­ina, you are here!’ I can hear him say­ing that to all the peo­ple com­ing to hon­our him . . . ‘Oh Bill, you are here! Oh Barack, you are here!’ . . . He still brings peo­ple to­gether even though he’s no longer here.”

He was a spe­cial, spe­cial hu­man be­ing. To try and take that away by blam­ing him for ev­ery­thing that’s wrong, that is un­fair

He loved peo­ple to sing to him on the phone. He was a bit tone-deaf but he would al­ways join in loudly: ‘Happy birth­day to me!’

Pic­ture: Esa Alexan­der

TRUE TO HIS LEGACY Zelda la Grange, for­mer per­sonal as­sis­tant to Nel­son Man­dela, says re­spect meant ev­ery­thing to the late pres­i­dent, ‘and that was where his great­ness lay’.

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