Growing up as a young Afrikaner girl from a middle-class family with an apartheid past, on paper, Zelda La Grange wouldn’t have been the ideal candidate to represent Nelson Mandela. Separating herself from the obscurity of the views which she was surrounded by, and proving that she was perfect to fulfil the requirements of the engrossed role. La Grange became more than just a PA to Mr. Mandela, offering companionship, trust and loyalty to the South African President. Zelda La Grange has released her new documented book, Good Morning, Mr.Mandela, which reminisces on her experience of working with the great man, capturing everything from her day-to-day routine of her job to the close personal relationship they shared until Nelson Mandela’s death.
For 19 years, Zelda La Grange was personal assistant, ally and close personal friend of Nelson Mandela, arguably the most enviable position anybody has ever held in public office.
From the age of 23, La Grange worked with Mandela from his election to South African presidency in 1994, the first democratically elected leader of the post-apartheid era, until his death in December last year aged 95.
La Grange’s journey from self-confessed “conservative supporter of apartheid” to the “rock” of the most respected public figure of the 20th century has been documented in her book, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela.
But rather than being a salacious warts-and-all expose looking to cash-in on his passing, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela is a touching portrait of the real man behind the public persona.
Forgiveness is a choice. He had to decide if he was going to forgive. That was the greatest gift of Nelson Mandela.
“The impact this man had on my life was so huge, I have an obligation to share the life lessons that I learned from him from my perspective,” La Grange says. “I’ve been so privileged and honoured, but it’s really an obligation for me to share the person I knew with the rest of the world.”
That meant not raking over major events in his life, but attempting to present a side to the former president that only those within his inner circle knew about.
“As a politician, people knew the strategist, they knew the world leader, but they didn’t know the human being. They didn’t know the humour behind the person, the teasing, how he reacted to people in simple situations, what his challenges were. And these are things I can share."
This is a particularly salient point for La Grange, who is at pains to stress that, though elevated to saint-like status by the world, Mandela never saw himself in those terms.
“Yes, and he repeatedly said it in that very famous quote of his that if; ‘you consider me a saint, then a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.' And that really explains it all. He was a wonderful human being but he always wanted to remind people of his vices and virtues.
“He was very stubborn, but as human beings we choose not to see another person’s shortcomings. So we as a public also elevated him to the saintly status, but he constantly brought us back to that quote."
The book contains some moving intimate details, such as the effect that Mandela’s 27-year jail term, largely spent in torture by his apartheid oppressors, had on his life upon his release in 1990.
“He often recited stories in his everyday life. It overshadowed a lot of discussions for him - 27 years is a long time. But he actually said sometimes in the later years that he missed prison. I would say, ‘how could you think that?’ but he would say that at least in prison he had time to think. He was so overwhelmed by the world, he found it very difficult to have quite time to just think and contemplate things."
As one of the last century’s most inspirational figures, Mandela’s wisdom is unquestionable. Being such a close confidante of the former president, what is the one life lesson that La Grange has brought away from her near two-decades of loyal service?
“That forgiveness is a choice. He had to decide if he was going to forgive. That was the greatest gift of Nelson Mandela. To see him operate over the years, you learn that he always made the peaceful choice. He always allowed the good in him to be victorious over the bad. He always said to me that there is good and bad in every human being, and he always made his choices based on the goodness within himself, the humanitarian part of his heart."
Good Morning, Mr Mandela, by Zelda La Grange, is out now, published by Penguin Books.