After Mandela retired as president in 1999, one year after his 80th birthday and his marriage – on the same day – to Graca Machel, la Grange’s relationship with him rose to an entirely new level. ‘After he left the presidency, he was allowed to take one person with him into retirement. It was a privilege that government granted all former presidents, and he asked me if I would be the person to remain in his service.’
They moved offices from the Union Buildings, a huge early 20th-century pile on a hilltop overlooking Pretoria, to what had been Mandela’s home in Houghton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg, prior to becoming president. ‘Overnight our infrastructure collapsed – we had no phone lines, no fax lines, yet everyone still expected so much of him, and there were more and more requests to see him, to get him to participate in things, and I couldn’t manage. We had around 150 to 300 phone calls, fax requests and proposals a day, so we appointed one or two more staff.
Only a day after Madiba announced his retirement from public life, La Grange is having a hectic day and casually complains about people who still hope to worm their way to meeting the former statesman. “It has been crazy this morning, I didn’t expect this day would be this wild.”
“People are still calling, hoping to get an interview with Madiba about his retirement, even though we made it perfectly clear yesterday that he is retiring. One just has to put one’s foot down.”
Eventually the Nelson Mandela Foundation was established, which allowed us to start building our own structure again.’
Mandela applied himself to raising money for the Foundation – which operated alongside the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, an African scholarship fund-raiser, and 46664 – with the single-minded energy he had deployed in his 50-year struggle to liberate his people. In la Grange he found someone who was his match both in energy and zeal.
‘A mutual appreciation developed between us. Madiba appreciated that I was trying to deliver what he needed to enable him to achieve what he wanted, without the big support structure we’d had in the presidency, and, well, he saw that I tried my best. He was very tolerant and became the biggest mentor one could wish for. Obviously, I started anticipating what his responses would be to any given situation because when you see a person every day for a period of 10 years you can anticipate what they think and what their response will be, which made things easier. He also knew that I cared for him as a human being and we grew closer, like a grandfather and a granddaughter. That’s why I began calling him ‘khulu’, which means grandfather in Xhosa [Mandela’s language]. It was not only office work. It was also travelling together, often on long plane trips. As part of my travelling duties I had to ensure that breakfast was served at the right time, and the right food, closest to the way he liked it. I would sit and have breakfast with him. It was inevitable that we became close. Other former presidents travel with delegations of not less than five administrative support staff – and some of them have much lower profiles than Madiba. I had to fulfil many diverse duties and we only had medical staff and security with us. I still maintain that it is a miracle how simple we have managed to keep things around him, yet I would like to believe we’ve been effective too, despite the majestic status he has and the massive demands on him.’
La Grange and Mandela were united, too, by the hectic nature of their schedules. They developed the solidarity of soldiers on the front line. ‘From 1999 to 2004, when he announced what he described as his retirement, those were what I call the crazy years. Then, despite his intense focus on the foundation, the Burundi Peace Process and other expectations on him, life was still determined a lot by world events. He had freedom to a certain extent to do what he wanted but he also got completely overwhelmed by things that weren’t priority. It took a lot of his energy. He would be in the office by 8.30 in the morning, have five, six appointments with people – every visitor wanted a photo, an autograph and intense attention – and then he would go home for lunch, and then there’d be more meetings in the afternoon or he’d get on a plane and fly off to wherever. We did a good 12 to 13 extended international trips a year then, even when he was approaching 85. I was happy when Mrs Machel could go with us on visits. She went with him often, but she was also very busy with her own foundation and her international work.’
The stress of a 24/7 job
It sounded as if she not only had a seven-day-a-week job, but a 24-hours-a-day one, too. ‘Yes it was, practically, during those crazy years. I would be in the office at about seven o’clock, because he likes his desk to be arranged in a particular way, his pens, his newspapers and his day’s programme and he likes things to happen in and with particular order. At eight o’clock the phones started ringing and from then on you never stopped so I preferred to prepare for his arrival before the craziness of the day started.
Visitors would be anyone from a prime minister, to a president, to a former president, to a world leader, to a world-famous celebrity, to a trade unionist, to a DJ, to rebel leaders from Burundi, to ordinary people, like a blind person who wrote him a letter and he invited to come and visit him. I would organise the schedules, logistics, protocol, travel, media etc. The nice part of the job was sitting with him in meetings; the worst was the endless requests and phone calls, the continual need to reply to emails of any persistent opportunists. It would often take me right through the night, wading through it all. You couldn’t leave it till tomorrow because then the same amount came in. There were endless requests on his time from all quarters.’
The Mandela way
Yet Mandela himself was always a pleasure to work with, she insisted. ‘One of the easiest people in the world, but he had his basic requirements. He likes a particular water, there must always be a footrest in his room and meals should be served at a specific time. The food, also, must be very basic, like the meals he has prepared at home, cooked food, fruit and healthy foods. It’s not always easy at five- or six-star hotels to get an ordinary cooked meal and soon on any trip we would miss the food of his long-serving Xhosa chef Xoliswa.’
Did any anecdote stand out? ‘Ooof, there are so many … but here’s one. There was a court case he was involved in against the president of the rugby federation, Louis Luyt. Well, I went to court with him and the first thing he did was go to the lawyers, Luyt’s people, and then shook their hands. I thought, “Why are you doing this? These people are the enemy!” And in the tea break I asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, “No, no, no, if you do that, you put people at ease.” What he was saying is don’t allow your enemy to determine the grounds for battle – which became one of the most important lessons in life to me. But regardless, he then surprised me again because, after the court case they won, but which was later dismissed by the constitutional court, we had a state visit by President Chirac of France. Everyone wanted to go to the state banquet and I was involved in drafting the guest list. Madiba called me and said, “We have to invite Louis Luyt’s lawyers!” At first I didn’t, and hoped that he wasn’t serious, but he kept on reminding me and I was forced to invite them. They were completely taken aback by this gesture of invitation, but that’s the way Madiba is. No matter what a person’s background, he will always extend the hand of friendship.’