If someone thought they were going to be vouchsafed some secret when Nelson Mandela indicated that he wanted to have a “private discussion” with them, they would be left disappointed – and possibly embarrassed – as all he would tell them was to lose weight. Well at least they were spared being told so publicly with a finger pointed at their stomach as was his wont earlier, till his hapless staff remonstrated.
But South Africa’s first leader elected by universal suffrage not only never got swept away by adulation of his counterparts and common people around the globe, he also never stopped speaking his mind or forgot the importance of the personal touch.
And such was his effortless, subtle charm, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and then president Mohammad Khatami or then Saudi King Fahd did not bat an eyelid when Mandela turned up at their meetings with a trusted woman aide – a white Afrikaner – and in fact, themselves asked her to come up and sit up with him.
It is this aide, Zelda La Grange who served Mandela for nearly two decades and is a prime example of his most valuable legacy – fostering reconciliation and trust in a divided society – that we are indebted to a incomparable look at the inspiring life of an icon, who exemplified generosity of spirit and was a transformative leader – changing not only his nation’s politics, but also lives of those who came in contact with him.
Raised in a millieu where apartheid was accepted as a matter of fact, there was no contact with the black population, and Mandela termed an evil terrorist, La Grange had begun working in the government in the early 1990. As Mandela was freed from his long incarceration and became president in 1994, her initial response, like many other Afrikaners, was a foreboding of retribution. As it proved groundless, a colleague told her about openings in the president’s office, she applied and was accepted.
Initially seeing Mandela at a distance, her first encounter was not very encouraging. Nearly colliding with him as came out, she only managed to wish him (hence the title), before she was overcome and started crying, and he tried his best to restore her composure, saying “Its OK, calm down, I think you are overreacting.”
That was the seemingly inauspicious beginning of what became a privileged relation, with Mandela as his executive assistant and organiser of his travels and meetings. It also meant neglecting her own life and later – unfortunately – a view of the ugly squabbling by some of his family over access to him and his legacy in his final years and after his death.
La Grange, who says she started writing this book in 2009 as a tribute to “Khulu” (grandfather in Xhosa as she called Mandela), stresses it is her story, not of Mandela. She also notes it is not a sensational expose that betrays his trust, or provides any great political insights or thematic dissection of his life but a “simple story of my experiences with him” and the lessons she learnt from him.
It is packed with fascinating anecdotes – of an eight-year-old who wrote a formal letter to Mandela seeking an appointment to “discuss matters relating to South Africa” and proved to be as formal in real life, his ceaseless attempts to go out and buy pens (Bic ballpens), books and dictionaries, his meetings with global statesmen (Gaddafi respected him a lot) and celebrities and attempts to do the best he could do for his people – and world peace.
Above all, it tells of a man who never gave in to bitterness – despite losing 27 years of his life in jail, remained simple, treated all with respect even when it was not reciprocated, and inspired people who once feared him to move from acceptance to admiration and even adoration – a legacy few can aspire too!