100 YEARS OF MANDELA
Zelda la Grange on keeping the legacy alive
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
“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!’
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’.