The legend of Zelda

The legend of Zelda

In her new book ‘Good Morning, Mr Mandela’, launched on 19 June, Zelda la Grange, the Afrikaner meisie who served as the statesman’s right-hand woman for 19 years, shares her story of transformation. She spoke to Jen Smit in London about common sense, Madiba the strategist, and love.

The legend of Zelda

Zelda la Grange is, she tells me, nineteen years tired – which has perhaps less to do with the current frenetic schedule of promotional activity around her new book Good Morning, Mr Mandela and rather more to do with the fact that she has spent the past 19 years at the beck and call of the most iconic statesman of our time.

“Madiba trusted me. He knew that if he called me at two ‘o clock in the morning I would answer and do whatever it was he needed me to do.”

She describes her relationship with South Africa’s first black president as a kind of complementary co-dependance: he demanded absolute loyalty and she had an intense need to please.

But how does a woman who admits to being racist by the age of thirteen, voting Conservative Party in 1989 and saying ‘no’ to reform in the referendum of 1992, find herself as the right hand woman of the man who her father referred to simply as ‘the terrorist’?

There was, she freely admits, a great dollop of fate. Twenty three year old Zelda happened to be in the right place at the right time; being interviewed for a typist position in the government’s HR department when Mandela’s private secretary, Mary Mxadana, interrupted the interview exclaiming “I need a typist and I need her now.” But how she moved up from typist through a range of roles including private secretary, spokesperson, aide-de-camp and, finally, personal assistant – a role she held until the day Nelson Mandela passed away on 5 December 2013 – had to do with strategy.

“Having watched Madiba over the years there was nothing in his life that was not about strategy. But when someone chooses you to represent unity, and that person is Nelson Mandela, what do you do with it? Do you walk away?”

Not walking away was the start of a transformation that impacted not only the young Zelda, but all those close to her too.

“One of the things that shows us the greatness of the man is this ripple effect that he had on people. Through me and through my dealings with him, not even tens or hundreds but thousands of people have been affected. He touched people.”

19588169-Good-Morning-Mr-Mandela-Grange-Zelda-laBut does she not feel, in some small way, a sense of personal ownership above that of the millions of people around the world whose lives he touched?

“No, not at all. And that is why I wrote the book because I wanted to share him. Share how incredible this man has been to me. The one thing I mention in my book is about him covering my feet with a blanket in an aeroplane – how do I deserve that? But people need to know that that is the type of person that he was. That he cared so much for this white Afrikaner that had nothing else than just dedication. You know people say he was a saint and that he had his faults but I wanted people to see how funny he was and how caring he was. So I am sharing him, in a way, with people and that, I thought, is my obligation.”

The book is not, she is quick to point out, a ‘tell all’ book. Nor is it a story about Mandela. It is her story, her experiences and her perceptions. Some of those experiences and perceptions, particularly relating to the last year of Madiba’s life and the treatment of his wife, Graca Machel, caused something of a stir when the book was first released.

“You know I will even defend people’s right to complain about it – that is the beauty of our constitution. And if it stimulates public debate, good, that’s great. In a way I am flattered that people found a way through my book to do that.”

Much of the fuss has now died down –  presumably because people have had a chance to actually read the book, not act on reflex – and members of the Mandela family were very vocal in their support of the book at its Johannesburg launch.

Style: "Dsty Taj blue"For me, one of the perceptions I am most interested in relates to Zelda’s references in the book to common sense. First when talking about how her family’s respect for authority and the rule of the NG Kerk superseded common sense in the time of apartheid, and later when the lack of common sense shown by the people who should have been caring for the ailing Mandela caused her such frustration. Who of our world and African leaders, I quiz her, has she found to have the most common sense?

“Well definitely Bill Clinton. Immediately. Closer to home, President Masire [former president of Botswana] struck me as a person with a lot of common sense, even president Museveni [president of Uganda] – although people may not like me mentioning, but we got to know him quite well through the Burundi peace process. And then president Mkapa [former president of Tanzania]”

And of South Africa’s current cohort of politicians?

“I would say Cyril [Ramaphosa], definitely.”

As a South African in London who came under a surprising amount of fire for turning up to vote in the 2014 elections, I am also keen to hear her view on  South Africans abroad being allowed to vote.

“You know it’s difficult to ask if they should or shouldn’t vote, it’s like asking me about euthanasia because I’ve never been there, but it’s something that Madiba fought for, that if you have a South African passport you’ve got a right to vote. It’s one of the freedoms that he fought for and if people feel passionately about it then they should fight for it.”

And what of the many quotable quotes attributed to Nelson Mandela; which ‘Mandelaisms’ does Zelda hold closest?

“Well definitely the one about don’t allow the enemy to determine the grounds for battle and the way you approach a person will determine how that person will treat you. Those are my two golden rules.”

I sense this book is for Zelda an act of closure, a door that she would now like to shut on an incredible but all-consuming period of her life. Easier said than done, of course, when one has spent so many years as the go-to person behind one of the most famous men on the planet. And now, with the addition of a book to her name, a level of fame in her own right.

“The fame is strange in a way that I am not going to accept it. I’m not going to start wearing designer clothes or change my habits or be a different person. The purpose of the book was to share, and now I’ve shared it and I want to go on with my life. and I want people to go on with their lives and let me disappear into obscurity. I just want to return to my life of 23 where I didn’t have this kind of stress of politics and public life.”

So what does the next chapter of Zelda’s life look like?

“I just want to be surrounded by peace and beauty, that’s really all.”

Peace and beauty may well come in the form of a flower shop. She has it all picked out in her head.

“I want one of those wire gates – half gates – in a light green colour with ivy around it that my brother can stencil on. And there must be three tables – just three – where people can come and have coffee – just coffee – and lots of flowers everywhere. And all I must worry about is please, don’t let these flowers die today.”

I ask her whether she is aware of the computer game The Legend of Zelda – “Ja I heard so – isn’t she a witch? I’m sure she’s a witch, you must Google her” – and ask her what she would like the legend of Zelda la Grange to be.

“One of love and hope. Because that’s the message in the book. If I can turn to love that much, anyone can. Love is the answer to everything.”

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Available now in hardcover and e-book.