By la Grange’s reckoning, they travelled together on more than 180 trips. And met just about every famous person in the world (none being more famous than Mandela himself) along the way.
When Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday, she was not as maniacally involved with him as she was. She still organised his daily schedule and his office, takes care of PR and keeping in contact with people who have donated generously to the Mandela charities. ‘More and more I get consumed by other duties in the Foundation, especially 46664, because I am passionate about doing something to ease the Aids crisis in our country as it involves human-rights issues. Aids can be prevented, yet it destroys millions of lives every year. I am helping organise the events for June here in London. And I still get involved in the detail. If we plan a dinner, I see to it that things are done the way Madiba would like them. He has always been meticulous about detail.’
The end of the era
Mandela may be the closest thing the world has to a secular saint, but he would not live forever. La Grange is resigned to Mandela’s mortality. ‘It’ll come to all of us,’ is all she said when the subject was raised.
When he turned 90 she said: “He’s doing exceptionally well. His blood pressure is probably better than yours or mine and his heart, lungs and other vital organs, are in better shape than most young people these days. But at 90 if you have a problem with your knee, that catches up with you. Also hearing, eyesight and general aches and pains that we all complain of as we age. But his sense of humour is as sharp as ever.’
What Zelda will remember
What’s best about him? ‘Simple, really. His humaneness. The way he is a very very good human being. The question people most often ask is if there really is no bitterness and it’s so easy to answer that: No! No crack has ever shown. If it was me: no way! So he is a special, extraordinary human being. So generous, and you see that in his interest in ordinary people.
He really does want to know how one’s father is doing when he asks you. He has always asked me how my parents are, how my brother is and after any boyfriends I may or may not have had at any particular point over which he then teases me endlessly. All my staff are female and he teases all of us over particular private issues – as any real grandfather would do.’
After 19 years with Mandela, are you a better person?
“Oh, absolutely! I don’t want to be too philosophical but I do wonder sometimes – Jeez what was wrong with my life that I had to go through so much change! But really, I don’t believe one human being deserves all the privileges I’ve had these past 14 years. It’s made me a different person, it’s made me think about things and approach life in a different, balanced and positive way. I like to believe I was brought up with really good common sense, from my father, but now I also see you have to really think things through, from the smallest thing around you to big political issues, to really have a true understanding of life and its challenges. He is an amazing person. President Clinton said he inspires us all to be the best human being we can possibly be, and it’s true.’
Thanks to him she was also, she said, kinder than she used to be. ‘He’s definitely taught me to be respectful – to every living creature.’
So the last 19 years really changed her outlook. “They have made me really value the smaller things in life. I pay particular attention to things like respect – Mr. Mandela was all about respect. My entire life has revolved around respecting and accepting other people so I’ve changed a lot. If you knew me 18 years ago I was a very selfish person and now my life is focussed on how I can help other people – what I can mean to other people – and I wasn’t like that before.”
It sounds like Mr. Mandela changed her entire attitude about life. “Yes, I certainly value life differently and think about things differently and I’m very grateful because of his influence in my life. It’s changed me. If you are close to someone like that all the time, you want to be a better person because you can see what it does for someone who has chosen to be a better person.”
Do you love him?
She did not hesitate in her reply. ‘Absolutely,’ she said. Was love the word? ‘Yes, without a doubt.’ To which the next question was how she managed to reconcile the roles of granddaughter and what she formally remained, a paid employee? ‘You learn to balance that. I’ve never invited Madiba to my house for a family braai [barbecue], I have never asked him for a photograph of the two of us together unless he asks me to join a photo. I am an employee and I never forget that. I respect the boundaries, I never get too familiar or feel I am entitled to anything and I try to give him the space he needs which results in me fiercely protecting him, too.’
She said there is nothing about Mandela that she did not like. “Nothing. Nothing.’ He’s very trusting. He has a saying, “Don’t question another person’s integrity without reason, because it could be a reflection of your own”. He does not question another person’s integrity until the opposite has really been proven. And that has sometimes led to differences between us. Over him being too kind to people, me urging him to see through people faster than he does. I am cynical, over-cynical sometimes, about people’s motives.’ So there was a clash between her cynicism and his extreme generosity? ‘Yes, but he only gets to see the best of all people. Do you think people ever come to him and show him their worst sides? No. But the rest of us get to see those. I see all these ideas flying in and chancers and opportunist ideas people come up with sometimes so clearly indicating exploitation. It has now become a function of the Nelson Mandela Foundation to protect him against that commercial exploitation. So I have to have a different attitude. I have a huge red-flag alert system. It comes with the territory.’
Zelda the Gatekeeper
She has been described as a lioness and a tiger by the media and top businessmen, but Nelson Mandela’s “right hand” says she is only a pussycat. She says her reputation as a ruthless protector of the world’s most loved octogenarian is just part of the job, and not her real personality. The passion for her job becomes evident when you get closer to Zelda la Grange, Madiba’s trusted personal assistant and spokesperson, who is prepared to be nasty to protect the man she regards as a grandfather.
This gatekeeper role of hers, inevitably make people angry with her. ‘Oh yes! I think I have more enemies than anyone I know. I often think about it because I hate disappointing people. It gets a bit negative when you have to tell people 200 times a day, “No, no, no”. A large part of the job is saying “No, he cannot see you”. But I think to myself, you didn’t take this job to win a popularity contest and my main objective is to protect Madiba’s interests and execute his wishes – as long as I do that, I shouldn’t care about who gets angry at me for what.’
Being a gatekeeper to an international icon like Madiba is not a popular job, and she confesses to despising saying “no” and having to be rude to people.
“I respect that people love Madiba, and I love him too. But what people do not understand is that he also has to rest, and I’m usually the person who has to put the foot down and say it is enough.”
While she is the envy of many for having a perfect job, there has been a lot of animosity directed at her from all spheres, including her own conservative Afrikaans family. Even though she has developed a thick skin over the years, she still gets hurt by negative remarks. Back in 1994, some racist elements in her Pretoria community rebuked her for working for a black man, and her family needed convincing on her choice of employment.
Up to this day, many people, black and white, still want to know why a powerful man such as Madiba would put his life in the hands of a 34-year-old Afrikaans woman.
“The animosity is non-stop. I’ve been referred to as ‘that white girl’ and people do not understand what Madiba is doing ‘running after a white girl’.
“It just never stops. From the beginning, backward people in my community questioned why I took this job. They would say to me: ‘Why would you serve tea to a black man, it’s humiliating’.
“But since Madiba believes so much in reconciliation, I’ve also learned a lot from him. However, I’m convinced that even if he had employed an African person as his PA (personal assistant), there would still be animosity.
“It comes with the job.”