“In Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, Zelda la Grange recounts her remarkable life at the right hand of the man we both knew and loved. It's a tribute to both of them—to Madiba's eye for talent and his capacity for trust and to Zelda's courage to take on a great challenge and her capacity for growth. This story proves the power of making politics personal and is an important reminder of the lessons Madiba taught us all.”
—President Bill Clinton
“President Nelson Mandela’s choice of the young Afrikaner typist Zelda la Grange as his most trusted aide embodied his commitment to reconciliation in South Africa. She repaid his trust with loyalty and integrity. I have the highest regard for her.”
—Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
“Zelda la Grange has a singular perspective on Nelson Mandela, having served as his longtime personal aide, confidante and close friend. She is a dear friend to both of us and a touchstone to all of us who loved Madiba. Her story of their journey together demonstrates how a man who transformed an entire nation also had the power to transform the life of one extraordinary woman.”
—Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary, actor, producer of Invictus
A white Afrikaner, Zelda la Grange grew up in segregated South Africa, supporting the regime and the rules of apartheid. Her conservative family referred to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela as “a terrorist.” Yet just a few years after his release and the end of apartheid, she would be traveling the world by Mr. Mandela’s side, having grown to respect and cherish the man she would come to call "Khulu," or “grandfather."
Good Morning, Mr. Mandela tells the extraordinary story of how a young woman’s life, beliefs, prejudices—everything she once believed—were utterly transformed by the man she had been taught was the enemy. It is the incredible journey of an awkward, terrified young secretary in her twenties who rose from a job in a government typing pool to become one of the president’s most loyal and devoted associates. During his presidency she was one of his three private secretaries, and then became an aide-de-camp and spokesperson and managed his office in his retirement. Working and traveling by his side for almost two decades, La Grange found herself negotiating with celebrities and world leaders, all in the cause of supporting and caring for Mr. Mandela in his many roles.
Here La Grange pays tribute to Nelson Mandela as she knew him—a teacher who gave her the most valuable lessons of her life. The Mr. Mandela we meet in these pages is a man who refused to be defined by his past, who forgave and respected all, but who was also frank, teasing, and direct. As he renewed his country, he also freed La Grange from a closed world of fear and mistrust, giving her life true meaning. “I was fearful of so much twenty years ago—of life, of black people, of this black man and the future of South Africa—and I now was no longer persuaded or influenced by mainstream fears. He not only liberated the black man but the white man, too.”
This is a book about love and second chances that honors the lasting and inspiring gifts of one of the great men of our time. It offers a rare intimate portrait of Nelson Mandela and his remarkable life as well as moving proof of the power we all have to change.
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Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in Boksburg, South Africa, and began working as a secretary for the South African government in 1992, in the Department of State Expenditure. In 1993 she moved to the Human Resources division, and in 1994 she joined the office of the first democratically elected president of South Africa as a senior ministerial typist. She became one of President Mandela’s three private secretaries in 1997. In 2002 she left government and became a full-time employee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In June 2013 the son of the ANC stalwart Oliver Tambo, Dali Tambo, conducted an interview with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mugabe said: Nelson Mandela is too much of a saint. He has been too good to white people at the expense of blacks in his own country. Some agreed while others protested. To some extent I think the man had a point. It could well have been perceived that way. And yet, in a conversation with Richard Stengel, quoted in Conversations With Myself, Madiba himself said a long time ago, ‘People will feel I see too much good in people. So it’s a criticism I have to put up with and I’ve tried to adjust to, because whether it is so or not, it is something which I think is profitable. It’s a good thing to assume, to act on the basis that . . . others are men of integrity and honour . . . because you tend to attract integrity and honour if that is how you regard those with whom you work.’
Somehow in the Mugabe interview I felt responsible for this perception that he has been too good to white people. Indeed he has been too good to me, but I want to believe that he felt proud of how he changed this insignificant life. He often said that if you change one person for the better, you have done your duty. He has not only changed my life but millions of others. He has done way beyond what is expected of a single human being and perhaps for that he deserves to be hailed as a saint after all.
In another conversation with Richard Stengel, Madiba said, ‘Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings, not because you think they are angels. And, therefore, once you know that this man has got this virtue and he has got this weakness you work with them and you accommodate that weakness and you try and help him to overcome that weakness. I don’t want to be frightened by the fact that a person has made certain mistakes and he has got human frailties. I can’t allow myself to be influenced by that. And that is why many people criticize me.’
I try not to think ‘Why me?’, to understand why Nelson Mandela chose me. If I do, I think of these quotes above. In the nineteen years we spent together he learned my weaknesses, he learned my strengths, and he invested in my strengths to make me the person I am today.
I served him for almost twenty years and was his PA until he left us on 5 December 2013. In 2009 I decided to start writing this book to pay tribute to him. I mostly wanted to record my experiences in the hope that others would be changed and influenced by my story too. My book is therefore a tribute to Khulu, as I knew him.
This is not his story. This is my story, and I am content with it. But the reader may be disappointed if they expect me to wash too much dirty laundry in public. I would not disrespect the trust Nelson Mandela had invested in me. That is the biggest honour he could have bestowed on me – to trust me – and I intend to cherish that for the rest of my life. What I decided to write about and what I decided to omit as far as he is concerned is based on that trust. It is therefore not a tell-all book.
It is also not a book of great political insights or a thematic dissection of his life. It’s a simple story of my experiences with him. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this great man over the years, reaffirmed by his wife Graça Machel to me later in life, is that you only have one person to account to and that is yourself. You have to go to bed at night with your own thoughts and conscience, and after writing this book I need to feel the comfort of a pillow of a clear conscience. I need to make him proud because as much as it feels that our lives were overshadowed by negativity and turmoil over the last couple of years, there is a beautiful story to be told, and I need to admit that I am part of that story and that it is my duty to tell that story. Above all, I need to know in my heart that if he had to read this book he would be happy with what I told and he would agree with the detail, and spending sixteen of the last nineteen years with him, day in, day out, I know what he would be comfortable with in the public domain and what he would not, and that is what is mine to protect.
The book is therefore a collection of anecdotes, sometimes at my own expense, of a road well travelled. No regrets and only lessons to be learned. I am an emotional billionaire, and if nothing extraordinary happens to me for the rest of my life I will still be content with my memories until the day I die. I have had a rich life. Most people will not experience what I have been witness to, and my story is therefore one of change, of slow metamorphoses of the mind and a belief system to where I am today. The reader has to decide if there is any part he or she can identify with or lessons they can learn from my story. It is not for me to decide.
It would also be incorrect to assume that I was the only one, or a special one, around Madiba. I played a particular role in his life, mostly concerned with his public life. But there are many others, household staff, office staff, security and medical personnel, who played equally important roles in his life and who he was totally dependent upon. Some of them are included in my story but I simply couldn’t pay tribute to each and every one of them.
I have tried my best without exception and that is the best I have to give. I hope to contribute to Nelson Mandela’s legacy in a small way by sharing the privileges and experiences I have had to anyone open to receiving them. If I change one life by touching another with my story, I have done my duty.
* * *
I remain grateful and indebted for ever . . .
It was early 2000s. I was in my thirties. I stood outside our office door in Johannesburg, as usual, awaiting the arrival of Nelson Mandela to receive him, escort him into his office and brief him on events for the day. Whenever his car appeared around the corner, my face lit up, no matter how much pressure I was under. The smile that painted my face was one loaded with love and admiration, like one would have when you see your dearest grandparents. His car came to a standstill and the bodyguards emerged. We greeted and briefly exchanged pleasantries before they opened the heavily armed car door for Madiba to step out of the car. Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name in South Africa. It is also the term with which people endearingly refer to him. Some call him Tata, which means ‘Father’, but most people refer to him and address him as Madiba. I called him Khulu, an abbreviated version of Tata um’khulu which means ‘Grandfather’.
While getting out of the car, our eyes met. I exclaimed, ‘Good morning Khulu.’ He called me Zeldina. He was handed his walking stick to support himself to get out of the car. The stick was made from ivory, a gift from his good friend Douw Steyn. He didn’t care much for material things but his walking stick was one of the few items he valued and protected with his life.
‘Good morning Zeldina,’ he said as he emerged from the car. His face lit up with his usual smile although I detected some reserve. Once the bodyguards had him steady on his feet, they handed him to me. He would support himself on his walking stick and hold onto my arm with his left hand.
‘How are you this morning Khulu?’ I asked.
‘I’m fine Zeldina,’ he said but he didn’t continue as he usually did, asking after my well-being. That was another sign that something bothered him. As we walked into his office I thought of giving him a few moments to gather his thoughts before I started overloading him with information about the day. Once his office door was closed he opened up:
‘You know Zeldina, I had a dream last night.’
I responded with a ‘Yes?’
‘I dreamt that you left me, that you deserted me . . .’ he said.
I was dumbstruck. Me? Zelda la Grange? Abandoning Nelson Mandela? How could he ever conceive me doing something like that? At the time I had been in his service for almost ten years. What would cause him to feel that I would abandon him? To the contrary, because of my early childhood I was the one who feared abandonment. I had to set his mind at ease. I put my left hand on his left hand which was holding onto my right arm and said, ‘Khulu, I would never ever do something like that and you should please never think about that ever again. I can give you my assurance that I will never abandon you.’ And then added on a lighter note, ‘In any event I think you are going to abandon me or chase me away before I can abandon you.’
He looked at me, laughed half heartedly, lifted his eyebrows and then responded: ‘I will never do that.’
That was the warmth of our relationship. We needed affirmation from each other. We looked after each other. I have grown to love this man who was once my people’s enemy. He resembled fear in our eyes. Growing up in apartheid South Africa as a white Afrikaner, we had spent our lives oppressing the same people that Nelson Mandela represented. He was the voice of the oppressed and the liberation struggle. Less than fifteen years after his release from prison, here I was trying to explain and defend my commitment to the man we once despised.
Apartheid was the system introduced by the white government in South Africa in the 1940s. It advocated for white supremacy and black oppression and was a clear set of legislation providing for the separation and segregation of white and black in South Africa. The laws of apartheid were upheld in churches and schools, on beaches and in restaurants, and any areas where the white minority could feel intimidated by the presence of black people.
Yet I walked next to Nelson Mandela for most of my adult professional life – each of us holding onto the other. I was a young Afrikaner girl whose views and mindset were changed by the greatest statesman of our time. Yet to me, he was more than my moral conscience. I had learned to care for him, because he cared for me. He shaped and changed my thinking because for him to employ a white Afrikaans-speaking young woman as his Personal Assistant was not only unprecedented, it was unheard of.
‘If it isn’t good, let it die’
On 29 October 1970 in Boksburg to the east of Johannesburg, South Africa, I was born and not left to die but to make it good, like most babies that are brought into this world.
On the same day, Nelson Mandela was already beginning his ninth year in prison. In prison since 1962, and then convicted for treason after the Rivonia Trial in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He and other political prisoners were incarcerated on Robben Island, a desolate island off the coast of Cape Town, for opposing apartheid.
At the time my father worked at a construction company and my mother was a teacher. They were very poor. My only sibling, my brother Anton, was three years old when I was born. Because our parents were white, we were born to legal privilege. That was the way it was in South Africa in 1970. Even though my parents’ families shared the same holiday destination every December, my parents only met in Boksburg once my mother was studying to become a teacher and my father was working in the postal service.
My grandfather’s family originated from French Huguenots who fled the south of France during the 1680s to escape the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic authorities. The La Grange family originated from a small town called Cabrières in the region of Avignon; a place I discovered and visited twice in the decades after my birth as a result of working for Nelson Mandela.
My father was one of two siblings. Their parents lived in Mosselbay, a coastal town along the picturesque Garden Route in the Cape Province. My grandmother’s sister was the first qualified female pharmacist in South Africa and up to this day the Scholtz family own and run a reputable pharmacy in the town of Willowmore in the Eastern Cape. She was therefore quite an impressive woman and someone we automatically looked up to as a result of her unique achievement.
I was also very fond of my dad’s father. His name was Anthony Michael but we just called him ‘Oupa Mike’ (Grandpa Mike). He used to visit us a few times a year and then stay with us for a few weeks. He smoked a pipe and the smell of smoke irritated us. He would sit on one particular chair and constantly wipe his hand on the arm rest. His skin was old and cracked and the tobacco from stuffing his pipe stuck in those cracks. When he left our home the armrest was black, much to my mother’s irritation, but nobody ever said he couldn’t smoke in the house.
My mother was the eldest of three siblings from the Strydom family. The only famous family with that surname was that of J. G. Strijdom (also sometimes spelt Strydom), the sixth Prime Minister of South Africa who served between 1954 and 1958. He was succeeded by the ‘Father of Apartheid’, H. F. Verwoerd. When I learned as a child about a Strijdom being Prime Minister, I convinced myself that we were somehow related even though no real connection exists.
My mother’s father died in a motorcycle accident when my mother was only twelve years of age. I often asked my mother whether she recalled the night they received the news about her father’s death. She has mostly avoided talking about it, but has said that she recalled been woken up by someone knocking on their front door and then hearing my grandmother crying hysterically.
My grandmother had few options about the upbringing of her children. She had a clerical job at the South African Railways and it was financially impossible for her to raise three small children by herself.
She decided to send my mother, being the eldest, to an orphanage. The children’s home was in Cape Town, which is why my mother still detests the city. For her, it stinks of abandonment.
Ma only saw her siblings and my grandmother once a year during the December holidays. Both the La Grange and Strydom families camped in the same area close to Mosselbay, called Hartenbos, during the December holidays, but they never knew about the other’s existence.
My mother’s childhood memories are limited to suffering, neglect, sadness. The world was suffering the consequences of the Second World War, slowly recovering from the economic recession, and my mother, even as an Afrikaans child in the 1940s in South Africa, felt those consequences through poverty. I greatly admire her for not holding a grudge against my grandmother, whatever the circumstances.
Grandma Tilly, my mother’s mother, was part of our everyday life, even though she had given up my mother as a child. She lived close to us and I would often visit her on my way from primary school, as she conveniently lived halfway between our house and the school. Before she moved closer to us, Grandma Tilly lived opposite the Union Buildings. Sitting on the hill overlooking the city of Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, the Union Buildings were built by Herbert Baker and were the seat of the apartheid government. Imposing, mo...
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