The Herald (South Africa)

MAGIC LIFE WITH MADIBA

From naive girl who didn’t know who Mandela was to PA:

- Kathryn Kimberley kimberleyk@timesmedia.co.za

ZELDA la Grange was a naive Afrikaans girl with her hair in a “bolla” when she first met the late president Nelson Mandela. But the tools he provided her with during the 19 years as his secretary and personal assistant turned her into an enlighteni­ng public speaker and a best-selling author.

La Grange recently released her memoirs Good Morning, Mr Mandela, a book which ruffled feathers among Madiba’s surviving family members. However, her relationsh­ip with Madiba’s widow, Graca Machel, remained intact.

“I saw Graca two weeks ago. She respects my observatio­ns and stories,” La Grange said yesterday.

She was in Port Elizabeth to speak at a fundraisin­g breakfast for Nelson Mandela Metropolit­an University’s Bursary Legacy Campaign. About 112 people attended the event. La Grange’s sense of humour and love for the world icon had the audience hanging on her every word.

“People ask me if I feel like the white token and I say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be Madiba’s white token’?”

The two most important tools Mandela provided her with were respect and discipline.

La Grange was born in Boksburg in Gauteng in 1970. At first she was embarrasse­d about her place of birth and used to tell people she was from Pretoria – that was until Oscar-winner Charlize Theron emerged from out of the woodwork.

She said growing up in a conservati­ve Afrikaans family, she never questioned apartheid and was happy with the way things were run in South Africa.

“I was swimming in the pool at my father’s house when he came outside and said, ‘That terrorist has been released from prison’.

“He became very upset with me when I didn’t know who Mandela was.”

Some time later, after applying for a job in the President’s Office, this same person she was brought up to fear stood in front of her.

“He shook my hand and I could see the kindness and sincerity in his eyes. Then he spoke Afrikaans to me and he immediatel­y destroyed my defences.

“He asked about my family and I just started crying. He told me I was overreacti­ng.”

Her life changed in 1995, when Mandela called her into his office and told her to sit down.

“I thought I had revealed a state secret or something. But then he asked me to go to Japan with him and I thought, ‘How in- appropriat­e’. The only reply I could think of was, ‘Sorry, I don’t have any money to go to Japan.’ He just laughed.

“It is only my dedication and loyalty that set me apart. Madiba could shape me into anything. He would take my hand and push my limits.

“He didn’t only free blacks in South Africa, he freed whites by teaching us his ways.”

La Grange said she mostly missed his smile and the way he used to joke about other people in Afrikaans when they travelled abroad.

Her father, who once feared his release back into society, enjoyed meals with Madiba – even though La Grange regularly kicked her dad under the table when he said something inappropri­ate – and even planted the trees at Madiba’s homestead in Qunu.

“I took a photo and joked with my father that times had changed. He was now working in a black man’s garden.”

But La Grange, who can tell many stories about the father of the nation, knows very little about Madiba’s last days as she, like many of his friends, was not allowed to visit him.

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