Nelson Mandela was 'completely intolerant of dishonesty,' says former secretary
Zelda la Grange recently released her memoir, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela
As a teenager in South Africa, Zelda la Grange knew of only one label for Nelson Mandela: “terrorist." That was her father’s description of the soon-to-be president of South Africa upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.
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But when la Grange talks about Mandela today, she’s one of the few who calls him Khulu, an abbreviation of the word for grandfather in his mother tongue, Xhosa.
By the end of his life, few knew Mandela as well as la Grange, whom he picked as a young woman to be his private secretary. An unusually close professional relationship flowered between them, and Mandela came to refer to la Grange as his "honorary granddaughter."
La Grange shares the privileged view she had of this extraordinary man in her new memoir, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela. Their closeness also made her a witness to the bitter feuding within Mandela’s family leading up to and after his death.
“He was exploited, because he was vulnerable,” la Grange told Laura Lynch, guest host of CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition this week. “He didn’t always know what he was being dragged into and being made part of.”
Following his death in 2013, la Grange said she was outraged when she heard Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, had to be accredited to attend her own husband’s funeral.
“I’ve never ever seen anyone being treated with so much disrespect,” la Grange said. “Show me anywhere else in the world where a widow has to be accredited to bury her own husband.”
The scene was hard to watch for la Grange, who had seen the couple fall in love less than two decades before.
A personal ‘metamorphosis’
La Grange, who is Afrikaner, first applied to work in Mandela’s office after he was elected president in 1994, a decision she said resulted in a personal “metamorphosis.”
“If you asked me at the age of 23 if I’m a racist, I would have denied it. Now, I can recognize that we lived apartheid, we lived segregation, we approved of the system. That makes you racist.”
Walking into the office of the new president on that first day, she said she still carried the image, which her father had first implanted, of Mandela as “the enemy.”
“We expected him to take revenge on us for all the years of incarceration and oppression that my people caused the black people in South Africa,” she said.
Her world began to change when she actually met Mandela for the first time.
“I could see the kindness in his eyes, the sincerity of his smile, and he really inquired about my upbringing, about me. He was interested in me.”
As he spoke to her in her native Afrikaans, she “was just overcome with emotion” and cried. He held her hand and told her not to overreact.
Mandela’s choice of an Afrikaans secretary was no accident. La Grange said she was conscious that she “was being used” to advance Mandela’s political aims. He would make a point of introducing her at meetings with Afrikaners present as “a real Afrikaner boer meisie,” or farm girl.
“I could have walked away from it, but I was happy and honoured of course that Nelson Mandela chose me to be that symbol.”
Mandela missed prison
But their relationship went beyond symbolism. Mandela confided in her and she saw into the quiet corners of his life. In his later years, she said she was shocked when he would tell her that he missed prison.
“I would be disgusted by that. I would say to him, ‘Khulu, you can’t say something like that. You can’t miss prison.’
“He said he actually missed having time to think, just the time and space to think things through properly.”
The moral rectitude Mandela showed on the world stage was reflected in the smallest details of his daily life, she said.
Once, on a trip to Kuwait, a security guard in his entourage took a bar of soap from Mandela’s bathroom. Mandela wanted to fire the entire squad.
“Whether it was a political agenda or a bar of soap, he was completely intolerant of dishonesty,” la Grange said. “Inequality, injustice, corruption: Any form of dishonesty made him just livid.”
Mandela himself never so much as took a bar of soap from a hotel bathroom, she said.
Apparently having nothing to hide, he connected with others with total ease and warmth. Walking into a stadium of 50,000, “it would feel to him as if he’s connecting to each and every person in that stadium.”
The same meticulousness he showed in connecting with people also characterized his approach to the most rudimentary daily tasks.
La Grange remembers “the way he folded his blankets with such precision, the way he folded his newspapers. And you had to allow him time to do those things, because that is what manifested from being in prison for so long.”
The lessons Mandela gave to the world will reverberate long after his death, but la Grange hopes she was able to instruct him in one thing.
“I would like to think, really, that I may have showed him how we as Afrikaners can also love unconditionally.”