Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Marriage passed me by but I'm happy it did, so I could dedicate myself to Nelson Mandela'

Zelda La Grange was Madiba's private secretary and in her memoir she claims that there was a mutual attraction between the two.

Firm friends : Zelda La Grange and the late Nelson Mandela.
Firm friends : Zelda La Grange and the late Nelson Mandela.

Stephen Milton

'I deeply, deeply loved him. If I need to be crucified for that, so be it." When Zelda La Grange was a little girl, she would never have believed that she could feel that way towards a black man, let alone Nelson Mandela, considered by her people to be a terrorist.

Zelda had been raised with the unwavering, fixed belief that black people were socially inferior. Yet, she would grow up to find herself 'hand in hand' with Mandela, her country's first black president. She was his private secretary, and the two grew extremely close, as she writes in her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela.

La Grange, who has never married, sensationally claims a mutual attraction and love between them.

"He was always concerned for my welfare; 'Have you eaten, Zelda? How did you sleep?' Every evening, he would always ask how I was getting home and would want to make sure I was safe," she explains.

"When someone starts caring for you, you can either walk away or reciprocate it. The more he cared for me, the more dependent I became on him, emotionally."

From the outside, this emotional reliance resulted in a complete sacrifice of her personal life.

For Zelda, however, Mandela was the centre of her world.

"[Marriage and children] passed me by but I was very happy they did because I was able to fully dedicate myself to him.

"If I went out to dinner with someone, my phone would ring five times. I would rudely stop everything because I had to attend to him because he was always my priority."

Zelda was brought up a Calvinist Afrikaner and the ideology at the heart of apartheid in South Africa was that black people were a threat to civil society.

"It was black against white in South Africa. That had been unquestioned, fed to all of us by our education, by the church, by the system."

With the inauguration of the ANC into government in 1994, the white population feared the worst.

"My thoughts were simple: 'Please don't kill us because we are white.' We expected revenge.

"But nothing happened. Life continued in a strangely unaffected way. My values were shaken and tested."

La Grange joined Mandela's administration in 1994 as a typist for his then private secretary, Mary Mxadana and soon found herself face to face - and hand in hand - with the man who would change her life.

The gravity of their first encounter proved overwhelming after the bigotry of her developing years. "I felt I was part of the people that deprived this man of a life. When I cried, it was a mixture of fear, shock and feeling responsible."

This powerful exchange was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship and a deep connection which saw Zelda promoted to private secretary only five years later.

She became his loyal gatekeeper and 'rock', supporting and caring for the man she would come to refer to as 'Khulu' or 'grandfather'.

However, a jaded school of opinion claims the former President was simply exploiting his white PA for international diplomacy and consular portrait.

"I recognised it when he took me to Japan in 1995 when I was still working as a typist. Who takes a typist on a state visit?

"But when I looked at the receiving line, I realised an entire South Africa was represented - there was an Indian person, a white Afrikaner, black people from different groups in South Africa - that was the picture he wanted to project to the world."

In Good Morning, Mr Mandela, she charts her early years and her professional life with arguably the most famous politician in the world up to his death last December. Along the way, La Grange details their travels together and the dignitaries and celebrities encountered - from Bill Clinton to Robert Mugabe, Queen Elizabeth to Bono.

"There was always a great warm relationship between Madiba and Bono. He had a great amount of respect for someone who tried to change the world with his actions.

"They both shared a lovely affection. It was wonderful to be in their presence."

The book also gives La Grange the opportunity to vent her fury over the handling of Mandela's farcical memorial service.

Some of the lowest moments included his wife Graca Machel forced to apply for accreditation to attend and close allies and friends including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former UN chief Kofi Annan being shut out of the VIP section.

Zelda's attributes much of the accountability for the muddled arrangements to his family, chiefly eldest daughter Makaziwe, who's now threatening the former aide with legal action.

"A beautiful thing that Madiba taught me, I will defend [Makaziwe's] right to criticise and have a voice. She's got a right. If there's anything I didn't portray correctly, she's got a right to challenge anything," she says, diplomatically.

"It's a complex family you're dealing with."

'Good Morning, Mr Mandela' is out now

Irish Independent

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