Nelson Mandela and Zelda la Grange. Image Credit: Supplied

PG1-MANDELA11-(Read-Only)Dubai: Coming from a conservative Afrikaner family in the Apartheid-era South Africa, Zelda La Grange grew up hating Nelson Mandela and everything he stood for. She grew up believing that she and the people of her ilk were superior to the people of other races. However, destiny had her work for the person she hated the most and before she knew it, she was among his admirers.

La Grange worked as Nelson Mandela’s secretary and confidante for 19 years, from 1994 as his Presidential Aide and from 1998 till his death in 2013 as his private secretary. She now uses her extraordinary experience with one of modern era’s greatest statesmen, as a source of inspiration for others.

“I was a 23 years old, looking for a job. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper and applied for the job. My understanding was that the job wasn’t with him directly. I was very naive thinking that if I got a job, I won’t have to do anything with him directly. But, that wasn’t the case,” said La Grange, speaking to Gulf News on the penultimate day of Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, sharing the story that not just transformed her life, but also her perspective about the world.


In town, to promote her memoir ‘Good Morning, Mr. Mandela,’ which offers readers a peek into the life of Mandela as a president and also as a regular human being, La Grange opens up on how her experience with Mandela brought about a complete transformation in her from a youth consumed by hatred to the advocate of love, tolerance and coexistence.

'Good Morning, Mr Mandela' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

“When I went in on the first day of my job I got a feeling that may be I was in trouble. I realised that the job may not be what it seemed and two weeks [later] I met Mr. Mandela. At that stage, I was still a very conservative Afrikaner, growing up in a conservative, pro-apartheid environment. My family and I, like many others, we were anti-reform, we were against change and we were supporters of apartheid,” she said, recollecting her initial reaction on meeting Mandela.

Hailing from a mainstream Afrikaner family from the South African capital, Pretoria, La Grange says she had bought into the apartheid propaganda.

“We were indoctrinated every single day to believe that we were superior to black people. So, that’s the thinking with which I started working for him,” she added, reflecting on the ideology she grew up on.

So, what was the first impression like?

La Grange says that despite the fact that she was meeting the president, she was not in awe, rather she was in a state of shock and afraid.

“When I met Mr. Mandela the first day, I realised that he was completely opposite to all the things I knew about him and expected of him. I expected him to be angry at me, I expected him to have resentment and I expected him to project that to me in our interaction but he did the opposite,” said La Grange.

He held my hand and he spoke to me in Afrikaans, in my language, in the language of his oppressors. So, it was quite an awakening to find him completely opposite to what the media or the mainstream told us about him. That’s where the transformation of my life started. It was really the start of the metamorphosis in me.

- Zelda La Grange

Recalling the moment vividly, she adds: “He held my hand and he spoke to me in Afrikaans, in my language, in the language of his oppressors. So, it was quite an awakening to find him completely opposite to what the media or the mainstream told us about him. That’s where the transformation of my life started. It was really the start of the metamorphosis in me.”

Though, still rigid and in denial and still holding on to the belief that she was a better person than him, simply because she was white, she started researching about Mandela.

“I walked away from that meeting on day one and started to read about him and started researching. When I learnt more and more about him through experience as well as through reading, I was stunned to discover that what he stood for were principles that I as a human being could align with. Because, he stood for respect, equality, freedom and democracy and that is what he sacrificed his entire life for,” said La Grange, relating the change that came over her, over a period.

Remarkable person

Understandably, La Grange, as an author and a motivational speaker, wants to share with the world the lessons she learnt through her exposure to the person she describes “as the most remarkable human being of his time.”

“From my experience I can tell people, particularly the youth, not to take anything on face value. This means making life difficult for your parents and teachers, but question them. Nothing is ever as it appears to be. You can’t take anything for granted. Especially now, when we are so overwhelmed with misinformation and fake news,” she said, urging the young minds to be inquisitive.

So, how was it working with Mandela?

“He was a human being like all of us. He had his off days and his mood swings, but he was fair minded and an extremely respectful person, irrespective of your appearance, your religion, your tradition, ideology or political leanings. When he met someone he gave total attention to the person in front of him and that’s what made him such a successful statesman and such a great humanitarian,” said La Grange, recalling how his quality for respecting everyone in the same manner is one thing that stands out about him.

Rainbow nation

So, the values Mandela stood for, such as racial reconciliation, mutual respect and coexistence, and upon which he founded the ‘Rainbow Nation’, are they still holding firm?

“I firmly believe that we are better off than we were 20 years ago. Racially, we get along much better than before, but it’s a slow process of transformation and people only change when they have exposure to different cultures and that takes time. Slowly, but surely we are getting there. People criticise the idea of the Rainbow Nation, saying it was a rainbow dream of Mandela, but I say it is a reality and I lived in that reality and for me it’s still there,” she said.

Zelda la Grange with the late South African President Nelson Mandela. Image Credit: AP

While commending the UAE’s efforts on building a tolerant society, she added: “Mandela’s example is a particularly appropriate one to use when it comes to tolerance. The kind of tolerance he exhibited through his forgiveness should be a yardstick for us all. What I saw him exercise was that we must give each other the permission to learn each other’s culture. If we have little more patience and a little more tolerance for others then we would have a better world.”

She said that Mandela and Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan shared a special bond and stood for similar values of tolerance and mutual respect.

Mandela — at a glance

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African freedom fighter and anti-apartheid leader who dedicated his whole life in fighting against white minority rule in South Africa before successfully ushering in a fully representative democracy in what he called a ‘Rainbow Nation.’

In 1994, he went on to become the country’s first black head of state in a fully representative democratic election.

Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 to the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, British South Africa. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg.

He became politically active from 1942 and joined the African National Congress in 1944 and went to establish the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).

Mandela rose through the ranks of the ANCYL and through it convinced ANC to adopt mass action against apartheid rule.

After being in an out of prison from mid 1950s on various charges, in June 1964 Mandela and seven others were convicted of sabotage and were sent to Robben Island, sentenced to life imprisonment.

In February 1990, after almost 28 years of imprisonment in various facilities, which also included solitary confinement, Mandela walked out free and immersed himself in official talks to end white minority rule. In 1991 he was elected ANC President and in 1993 he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize and on May 10, 1994 he became South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

True to his promise, Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term as President and continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund he set up in 1995 and established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

He died at his home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013.