Zelda la Grange: The strict and punctual Madiba

In an interview on Talk Radio 702, Zelda la Grange spoke about being the personal assistant to late former president Nelson Mandela.

"You can't use our names in the same sentence … What I missed [out on in my personal life] can never compare to what he sacrificed. It was such a privilege," La Grange said after many South Africans thanked her for her personal sacrifice and dedication to Mandela.

The former aide, affectionately called "Zeldina" by her boss, shared personal stories about her time working for the icon.

The nickname originated during a state visit to Russia in 1999, La Grange said. "Madiba just decided my name is Zeldina and almost everyone is calling me that [now]," she said.

Madiba was the easiest person to work with, she said. "He was [more of a] mentor."

After he retired from public life, La Grange said, she took over all dealings with the media. Mandela phoned her soon after and asked her to arrange a press conference for the next day.

"Five minutes later I phoned him back and said 'Nkhulu, how do I call a press conference?' He took me through it step by step … He was the best boss ever. I'm really not saying it because it's Nelson Mandela or anything."

She told talk show host Redi Tlhabi that she had "loved [Madiba] deeply", and did not think it was possible to be prepared enough for his death.

"We're overcome by a feeling of loss and sadness."

She struggled to watch "someone so strong deteriorating in health" but was careful to say everything she wanted to say to him every time she went to his home over the last few months.

'Bad person'
Being a personal assistant to one of the most in-demand people in the world meant La Grange sometimes had to be the "bad person".

"You know how disciplined [Mandela] was … he was strict, [and] punctual … Someone had to take the blame to take him away. I’ve been called [many] names … rottweiler, general … but someone had to do that so he got done what he wanted to do. I felt a lot of pressure and stress."

It was her shared respect for punctuality and efficiency that got La Grange one of the closest work positions to Mandela.

"We shared a work ethic. I'm a punctual person. I act immediately. He appreciated that and it served him well. That's really all it is."

She said he would phone her at 2am, for example, and say "tomorrow morning, first thing, I want to speak to minister [Kader] Asmal at 7am".

She said she would put everything else aside to make sure that this was arranged.

"Not having children or dependents made it easy for me to support him in the way he needed."

La Grange managed the inevitable stress by maintaining important boundaries with her employer.

When it came to moving up to Johannesburg from Cape Town, he offered for her to stay in his home.

"I said no because that would have been a crossed boundary. I never went and sat there and had tea or whatever. [We] would've become too familiar. It doesn't take away from the fact that I deeply loved him because I worked for him for so long."

She cried briefly on air when talking about how grateful she was to her supportive parents and brother, and laughed when she described a phone call from someone who needed help with training his pet parrot to talk with Mandela's accent.

It was important, she said, to make use of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory that "has all the things we are grappling with today … If you want to know what he said about nationalisation … relationships, it's there.  

"We need to study his legacy and disseminate it … then we can achieve the South Africa we all dream of," she said.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday