The secretary who fell for Mandela
Memor, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, Zelda la Grange Allen Lane, hdbk, £20, 400 pages
Published 12/07/2014 | 02:30
With the possible exception of the Duke of Edinburgh, Nelson Mandela must have been the only man on Earth who called the queen 'Elizabeth'. He was certainly the first and last human being to greet her with a cheery, "Oh Elizabeth, you've lost weight!"
Mandela in old age could get away with just about anything. As he travelled the world in his ninth and 10th decades, doing good works, dispensing homilies and sprinkling stardust over all he met, a ferociously loyal white Afrikaner was always at his side.
Zelda la Grange served as Mandela's secretary, gatekeeper and constant companion for the best part of 20 years. For those of us who encountered La Grange when she was running Mandela's life, her name was not exactly synonymous with words like 'calm', 'collected' or 'helpful'.
She often seemed at her wits' end – and possessed by a grim compulsion to spread her frustration. I remember a dozen despairing photographers crying "Zelda! Please!" as she planted herself between their lenses and a beaming Mandela as he greeted Tony Blair.
In Good Morning, Mr Mandela, her memoir of serving the man she called 'Khulu', or grandfather, la Grange freely admits that controlling his diary and catering to his every whim almost drove her mad.
Yet her love for Mandela – and his touching tenderness towards her – made it all worthwhile.
La Grange's book is marketed as a story of how a white South African got over her childhood racism and came to dote on a man her father had denounced as a "terrorist".
In fact, the book works in a completely different way. The transformation in la Grange's attitude towards Mandela was, after all, a path trodden by countless white South Africans. What makes this book compelling and ultimately heartbreaking is the picture it paints of Mandela in the tragic winter of his life.
First things first: la Grange is not an elegant writer. Her mother tongue is Afrikaans and she has a shaky grasp of English grammar, let alone descriptive prose. But her unguarded honesty allows her to tell a remarkable story, even if her sentences are often mangled.
The unspoken theme is how abominably Mandela was treated after retiring from the presidency in 1999. No one emerges well from this story: not South Africa's government, which ignored or disdained him; not Mandela's permanently feuding family, which shamelessly exploited him (with the outstanding exception of his third wife, Graça Machel); and not the world in general, which never left him in peace.
La Grange discloses how a South African diplomat sabotaged Mandela's charitable fundraising. The South African High Commission in London refused point-blank to arrange VIP treatment for Mandela when he came to Britain for his 90th birthday.
Meanwhile, President Thabo Mbeki was just about the only leader who would not take Mandela's calls. Most egregiously of all, President Jacob Zuma descended on Mandela in his final months – picking a day when la Grange and Machel were absent – to have himself and various ministers photographed beside a bewildered man who, in la Grange's words, was made to resemble a "caged animal" in a "zoo".
Mandela's death was followed by an organisational shambles, with Machel forced to seek accreditation to attend her own husband's memorial service, which she only received on sufferance. "I don't know of any person alive who has been treated with the amount of disrespect that people have shown towards Mrs Machel," writes la Grange. Inevitably, la Grange herself was forced out of her job by the vipers' nest of Mandela family intrigue.
There were, of course, happier times. La Grange had never travelled before she began working for him, and Mandela had only left South Africa once before going to prison.
So they went off to see the world: archetypal innocents abroad. In Russia and China, they are astonished to discover people don't speak English. In New York, they stay at the Waldorf Astoria, where la Grange is "impressed by the size of the room". Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Mandela announces that he wants to visit Mecca and Medina. La Grange fails to see any difficulty with this. The Saudis don't either – and all arrangements are made for Mandela to see the sacred places of Islam. Imagine la Grange's surprise when she is barred from going. Mystified, the aide discovers that her exclusion is down to her failure to be a Muslim. "But Madiba is not Muslim either!" she exclaims. The Saudis are "stunned". They were convinced he was.
Regrettably, the trip is called off. If only la Grange had kept quiet, Mandela could have been not only the first man to call the queen 'Elizabeth', but the first Christian to openly perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.
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