By Khulu’s side – The story of Nelson Mandela’s Afrikaner “boere-meisie” Ekow Nelson, 1st September, 2014
“No person is born a racist. You become a racist by influences around you. And I had become a racist by the time I was thirteen years old. By that calculation I should not have been Nelson Mandela’s longest-serving assistant. But I did.” These words by Zelda La Grange pretty much sum-up her story in her recently published memoir, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’* and are a tribute to the late President Mandela’s talent for persuading and power of transformation.
The memoir charts the unlikely journey and Damascene conversion of a conservative Afrikaner typist from the idyllic middle-class environs of Pretoria to the office of the first Black President of post-apartheid South Africa and later, as de facto Chief of Staff and spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation where for some 14 years she ran and organized the affairs of the most adored global political figure in the history of humanity. But as Miss La Grange is quick to point out, her book is neither about him nor is it a work of “great political insights or a thematic dissection of his life”. It is quite simply a peek into the most unlikely partnership anyone could have imagined possible in South Africa only a couple of decades ago.
Despite her close and proximate access, this is not a tell-tale book. Although it lays bare some of the rather ugly and unsavoury squabbles among family members, old comrades and staff towards the end of his life, and indeed during his funeral, one will not find any sensational or salacious revelations here. On occasions, however, one is let into the inner sanctum of Nelson Mandela such as when the South African ambassador and Barbara Masekela ushered an ’unknown’ woman into the Presidential suite of the guest house in Paris where he was staying during the first state visit to France, and left them alone together. The ‘unknown’ woman turned out to be Mrs. Graça Machel who was later to become Nelson Mandela’s wife. At the time few people, if any, had any inkling that they were an item. Or when East Timor’s Xanana Gusmão, was secretly taken in handcuffs to visit Nelson Mandela in the Presidential guest house in Jakarta where he was staying during a state visit to Indonesia. President Mandela had insisted on meeting his ‘fellow political prisoner’, then leader of the resistance movement in East Timor, as a condition for the state visit. That gesture alone is said to have contributed in no small measure to Gusmão’s eventual release and with that, his elevation to office as the first President of independent East Timor.
The Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, may have mocked Mandela’s sartorial tastes, with his trademark colourful shirts, but few knew that Nelson Mandela’s wardrobe was in part carefully put together by Stefano Ricci of Brioni, the famous high-end Italian fashion brand, in collaboration with his long-time South African tailor Yusuf Surtee. He was a frugal man too; always cost conscious. He would enquire about the cost of the hotel rooms they were staying at on formal government business and ensured that South Africa always maintained a small delegation of no more than 20 staff including security, on foreign visits.
So while the book does not betray significant inner-secrets, it is full of personal vignettes and nuggets that provide deeper insights into the public figure we came to know but whose personal life remained, for the most part, inscrutable after many years marooned on Robben Island in solitary confinement.
Zelda La Grange, the Afrikaner ‘beore-meisie’ (meaning farm girl) as Mandela occasionally referred to her, was born in 1970 into a white middle-class family of Dutch and French Huguenot descent. Her parents and grandparents were not wealthy by any means. Her mother was brought up in an orphanage in Cape Town after her maternal grandfather died in a motorcycle accident. Grandma could not afford to bring-up all three children on her own on the salary of a clerk at the South African Railways and gave up her eldest. But the institutional privileges of apartheid, such as they were, trickled down even to average white folk like their family. Jobs were aplenty and the benefit of a decent and well-funded education for whites provided access to the highest-paying jobs in the economy. Whites lived in the best neighbourhoods and although much of their direct contact with blacks was limited to house helps, what they thought and believed about blacks in the turbulent years of the 1980s were shaped by news reports on bomb atrocities and recycled racial myths. As Miss La Grange recalls, “we were bought up to believe that [black people] were not clean as we were [and] smelled different”. Like her, many of South Africa’s whites were fed, clothed and tucked into bed by black nannies as babies, but they nonetheless believed, as they grew up, that “[t]ouching a black person was taboo”. White South Africans would “never think of touching a black person’s hair or face… [i]t was just unthinkable”, she wrote. In the political and cultural context in which she grew up, white South Africans like Zelda were made to believe that “all black people were communists and atheists” and they had good reason to fear them.
Although Zelda La Grange was not politically active in her youth, her political views were shaped by the conservatism of the minority Afrikaner community she belonged to. Given the opportunity (and privilege) to vote for the first time when she turned 18, the young Zelda plumped for the breakaway Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht because the dominant Afrikaner Nationalist Party (the Nats) favoured reforms to apartheid that would give blacks the vote and abolish obnoxious laws like the Group Areas Act. At the age of 19 she did not really know who Nelson Mandela was or what his release symbolized. Her father’s reaction to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990 was “[n]ow we are in trouble … [t]he terrorist has been released”, to which Zelda responded: “[w]ho’s that?” Mandela’s influence was such that years later, that same father would volunteer to plant full-grown trees on Mandela’s farm in his village of Qunu to protect the view of his house from the road, for free.
In the immediate aftermath of the first multi-racial election that brought Nelson Mandela into power, Zelda La Grange, then 23, was among those in the civil service tasked with processing applications for blacks who wanted to join the civil service as part of an effort to make the government more representative. Some whites had voluntarily left the government and new positions were becoming available. The job of typist in the President’s office was advertised and although it was below her job grade then, she was keen to apply because it offered the prospect of spending half the year in Cape Town (where the South African Parliament sits) and the remainder in Pretoria when Parliament was not in session. What she did not bargain for was that she would end up “in an office … closer to the political centre of beliefs [she] still opposed” – the office of the new the President’s private secretary. Inevitably, she ‘bumped’ into the President in the proverbial corridor. She broke down in shock and confusion when the President spoke to her in Afrikaans but pulled herself together quickly and their relationship was unstoppable after that.
In the ensuing years as she came to know Nelson Mandela and many of the so-called ‘enemies’, her fears began to subside. She immersed herself in learning the untaught and untold history (to whites at least) of her country and gradually began to alter the fundamental beliefs she had been brought up with by her community, school and church. The process was not entirely painless however: not only were there fallouts with old friends and family members, she sought counselling from white anti-apartheid stalwarts like Rev. Beyers Naudé who helped her make sense of what was going on and resolve her inner conflicts.
It also became clear over time that President Mandela had consciously decided to co-opt his new Afrikaner typist into his inner-circle to give visible expression to his commitment of an all-inclusive South Africa, but surprisingly Miss La Grange did not object or feel used. As her disciplined organizational skills – including being a stickler for order and detail – became evident, they started working more closely together and Nelson Mandela’s decision to ask her stay in his employ post his presidency, did not come entirely as a surprise.
The memoir is organised in four parts and begins with a brief autobiographical sketch focusing mainly on the author’s early years as a child growing up in apartheid South Africa. The second part deals with Nelson Mandela’s years as President of the new South Africa. In part three, we get a backstage view of Nelson Mandela as a globetrotting global statesman and über-fundraiser for good causes including education and HIV/AIDS. The last part of the book recounts the final years dominated by family and staff conflicts that are both unedifying and regrettable.
Having spent nearly three decades in prison Nelson Mandela was a man in a great deal of hurry after his release. He was restless and wanted to meet as many people as he could possibly manage and travel to as many places, both to make up for lost time and to make a difference in the lives of many who depended on him, whether they were HIV/AIDS patients, people suffering oppression elsewhere or kids who needed the opportunity of a decent education. This made for a fast-paced travel schedule and a punishing itinerary into which Zelda La Grange immersed herself completely.
The memoir is her first attempt to share some of that experience with the wider world. On occasions, however, it does read like a travelogue. Passages like “[f]ollowing the visit to Burkina Faso we went to the United Kingdom…[a]fter a day’s official visit in London we went to Wales…[then] to Italy on a State visit” without much detail read like entries from a travel diary. Other than recording that they visited all these far flung places it wasn’t clear what the reader was to make of these trips. Visits to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Japan provided insights into culture and state protocol that added to our overall understanding of those cultures but others could have been excluded without losing much from the narrative.
The book tells us more about Mandela’s ‘terrifying’ secretary who was not known much to the world outside South Africa. Her preternatural innocence about the ways of the real world comes across fairly early in the book. For example when then President Mandela asked her to be part of his entourage to Japan she responded with “[t]hank you Mr. President but I don’t have money to go to Japan right now”. President Mandela could not help but burst into laughter. She was doubly shocked to learn she would also be paid “an extra allowance for going on her first trip abroad. On another occasion she was called by the police to meet men from the National Intelligence who had ostensibly come to ‘sweep’ the President’s office. Taking them at their word, literally, she told them their services were not needed because they already had cleaners. It fell to the police to explain to her that ‘sweeping’ the President’s office was a euphemism by the intelligence services for searching and removing listening devices. Her capacity for self-deprecation is one of her most endearing attributes.
We get a glimpse of Mandela at work as President who saw his main job as healing and uniting his nation. He delegated much of the business of running the country to his then deputy and later President Thabo Mbeki. The choice of President Mbeki as his successor was not without controversy and revealed deep rivalries among the leadership papered over by Mandela’s presence. Later, his larger-than-life image risked overshadowing the new government led by Thabo Mbeki and that created tensions between the two offices in the immediate years after Mandela’s retirement, one of which was the famous standoff over the Mbeki administration’s stance on HIV/AIDS.
As President, he believed his raison d’être was to bring various factions and ethnic groups together and went to great lengths to ensure there was broad, if not equal, representation in everything he did: from the selection of his staff, schools he visited, to the mix of children invited to his Christmas parties. He did not believe in holding grudges and encouraged competitors and opponents from all walks of life to collaborate – the likes of Mercedes and BMW were encouraged to join forces on charitable projects and implacable political opponents in Zaire and Rwanda urged to work together.
His magnanimity and lack of bitterness after his 27-year incarnation shamed many world leaders but it also gave him the right to speak his mind without fear. Asked what he thought after he visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem he responded thus: “[t]his is a tragedy that happened to the Jewish nation, but one should never lose sight of the fact that this burden is carried by the German people too. The current generation of Germans suffer to rid [themselves of] the stigma they have had to carry as a result of these events for which they themselves cannot be held accountable at this time and age”. Naturally, some of his Israeli hosts were none too pleased with the tenor of reconciliation he struck but he could not be bothered. Jewish South Africans had been prominent in the anti-apartheid movement and many of Mandela’s closest friends and comrades like Ruth First, Nat Bergman and Joe Slovo were Jewish and his defence team at Rivionia included Joel Joffe, Harry Schwarz and Arthur Chaskalson (whom he later appointed Chief Justice). Still, it couldn’t have escaped his Israeli hosts that the man who led the charge against Mandela as state prosecutor during the trials in 1963, was the aggressive Percy Yutar, the first Jewish Attorney General under apartheid. But for the intervention of presiding Judge Quartus de Wet, the rottweiler Percy Yutar would have been all too happy to see Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg and others sent to the gallows. If Mandela could forgive Percy Yutar, even invite him to lunch as he did, then surely his hosts could not be offended by his comments about sparing a thought for the Germans too. In later years, Percy Yutar would even have the chutzpah to request Nelson Mandela’s help to sell the Rivonia trial papers for personal gain because he was in financial difficulty.
Would Nelson Mandela have been as conciliatory if he were elected in the heady-years of Africa liberation when he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe? We will never know. Whether as part of the natural process of maturation or otherwise, Mandela came back from prison less angry than he did going in. The arch-reconciler and uniter who emerged from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990 steered South Africa away from violent conflict ensuring that this beautiful but deeply divided country on our continent will always wa
ke-up to a brighter morning and for that Africa and the world owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Ordinary people and small things mattered to him a great deal. As he wrote in one of his letters to his daughter Zenani, “the habit of attending to small things and of appreciating small courtesies is one of the important marks of a good person”. He insisted that those in his entourage, including flight crew and security, were always seated with everyone else at state banquets given in his honour. He treated everyone he met with respect regardless of rank or social standing. Showing respect meant not keeping people waiting without good reason and he was generally not late for appointments or meetings. He once berated Zimbabwean President Mugabe publicly for appearing at a South African Development Community (SADC) meeting an hour late. Their relationship soured and never recovered after that.
While Mandela became a global statesman he was close only to few world leaders and celebrities. He was fond of the Queen of England with whom he was on first-name terms as in Nelson to Elizabeth. Relationships with Hollywood stars were fleeting and ephemeral with the exception of the actors Robert De Niro, a regular dinner host in New York, and Morgan Freeman, who played Mandela in the movie Invictus. South African billionaire Douw Steyn and owner of Johannesburg’s luxury Saxon hotel – where Mandela wrote ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ – was also a close friend. Contrary to talk of ANC indebtedness to ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi for his unwavering support for the anti-apartheid movement, their relationship appears to have been strengthened only through Mandela’s involvement in the trial of the Libyans accused of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Mandela was instrumental in persuading then British Premier Tony Blair and United Sates President George W. Bush in holding the trial in The Hague under Scottish Law. Along with his trusted friend Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and his closest confidante and intellectual-cum-political guru, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, Mandela persuaded the ‘Brother Leader’ to deliver the two suspects to the Scottish authorities or the trial.
He acknowledged the efforts of those who scarified their careers for the anti-apartheid struggle. People like Hugh Masekala, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Musaka (of Pata Pata fame) whom he would meet for lunch every now and then or “raise cars” for (i.e. persuade donors to give them cars).
Miss La Grange similarly devotes a lot of space in her memoir saying ‘thank you’ to all those who helped her along the way, regardless of who they were. The acknowledgements section of ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’ – one of the longest I have seen – runs into several pages and reads like the World “Who’s Who”, featuring royalty, global statesmen, businessmen and women, politicians, media moguls, musicians, artists, Hollywood actors, renowned professionals in various fields as well as secretaries, security guards and house helps who played a part in Zelda La Grange’s fascinating journey.
The book is suffused with devotion and loyalty but one sometimes wondered whether Miss La Grange was not trying too hard to over-compensate for her guilt over apartheid. Comments such as “I couldn’t remember as a child being tucked in my bedroom by my parents, yet here the man we all feared in the late 1980s (when we became aware of his existence) was covering my feet, worried about my well-being” or “[h]e treated me like I was part of his people caring for me like you would for your own” made me cringe at times. Earlier in the book she tells us about her mother’s attempted suicide and how that had left her feeling “constantly terrified of being abandoned” and as a result, had a tendency to over-compensate. That emotional need to be there for someone also made her ideally suitable for Nelson Mandela who after 27 years’ incarceration needed someone to be there for him – constantly.
Overall, the book could have been edited a little more tightly. A number of themes and observations such as Mandela’s inability to handle money after his release was repeated many more times than was necessary. Sometimes the author’s effusiveness over Mandela’s capabilities led to claims that were somewhat in the realm of the hyperbolic. For example in explaining Nelson Mandela’s clash with the Mbeki administration’s stance on HIV/AIDS, she claimed that “Madiba helped people to get access to AIDS drugs – people who then recovered and led some quality lives”. That is quite a strong claim to make given that there is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS. I suspect she meant they got better and were able to lead more ‘normal’ lives as they gained access to anti-retroviral drugs. A final editorial point: readers like me would have benefited enormously from the inclusion of an index to make references backwards and forwards easier.
My biggest disappointment with the book, however, is the absence of any serious discussion about the Afrikaner, and perhaps the broader South African white community, post Nelson Mandela. Her father makes fleeting appearances at the beginning, during the 1995 Rubgy World Cup finals when then President Mandela famously wore the Springbok jersey and a couple of times later. Apart from a brief appearance at the start, mum hardly features. Tensions with white friends are mentioned here and there but there is no real discussion about the views of the Afrikaner people nearly 20 years after Mandela and the black majority assumed power.
The overall impression I came away with was that racial difference is far more seared into the South African psyche than I had imagined. As recently as 2013, even Zelda La Grange was surprised by a gesture of goodwill shown her by an unknown black man who hugged and comforted as she shivered and cried inconsolably at the loss of Nelson Mandela. After everything she had experienced over the past couple of decades she says gestures such as these “touched my inner core when strangers, black people reached out to me in this way.”
Zelda La Grange’s commitment to Nelson Mandela left her little room for much else. She joined Mandela’s office in her early twenties, threw herself into her job and never had time for relationships or a family of her own. While incomparable, her years with Mandela when she cared for him and organized everything from his office to charity events and travels across the world were as much a personal sacrifice. As she ruefully observes “I never had a normal relationship after I started working with Madiba… [and] never got in touch with mainstream youth apart from my colleagues but I was also never in the same place long enough to even maintain stable platonic friendships. As a result I still lack the emotional capability to deal with very ordinary things.” Still, she concludes, “I would never exchange the experience and opportunity of working for Nelson Mandela for any other privileges”.
‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela’ is Zelda la Grange’s swansong for the man she called ‘Khulu’ (meaning Grandpa in Xhosa) to whom she quite literally devoted much of her adult life . His departure has cle
arly left a palpable void in the author’s life and one gets the sense that writing the memoir was a way of coping with her loss. One cannot help but feel sorry when she reflects on her future and asks rhetorically “[m]aybe I will find another job and perhaps I will find a man to spend time with, one who knows and will respect that a piece of my heart has already been taken…given to an old black man who was once my people’s enemy and is now lying like an ancient King, deep in the soil of South Africa’s golden hill of Qunu”. It is a beautiful story of a multi-racial partnership that was the quintessence of the man and emblematic of the change he brought about.
©Ekow Nelson, Abu Dhabi
*Good Morning, Mr. Mandela (2014), by Zelda La Grange is published by Allen Lane of the Penguin Group