Zelda, you shatter our illusions

More than a PA: La Grange served Nelson Mandela for 19 years, arguably affording her more time with the world icon than his wives had. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

More than a PA: La Grange served Nelson Mandela for 19 years, arguably affording her more time with the world icon than his wives had. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

  ‘And I had become a racist by the time I was 13 years old. By that calculation I should never have become Nelson Mandela’s longest-serving assistant. But I did,” notes Zelda la Grange nonchalantly in the opening sections of her book Good Morning, Mr Mandela.

By all accounts, La Grange’s story is a remarkable one.
She is one of the few people who can say of Mandela: “In the 19 years we spent together …” This is pretty special. Neither Graça Machel nor Winnie Madikizela-Mandela can say this in quite the same way.

Catapulted by fate and tears (she cried heartily at their first meeting) into Mandela’s company at the age of 23, Zeldina, as Mandela fondly called her, has come to be regarded as an honorary member of the Mandela family (at least by some members of that family) and as part of his professional “inner circle”.

On the face of it, she cried because she was so overwhelmed that Mandela shook her hand and spoke to her in Afrikaans. There was, as others have noted, a “romantic” dimension to their relationship. In many ways they were a “couple”. Mandela shared some astounding intimate moments with her.

In the prologue to her book, she tells of a day when Mandela revealed that he had dreamt overnight that she had deserted him. “I will never abandon you,” she reassured him.

“Zeldina, they say we have prostate cancer,” he told her on another occasion.

Though La Grange tries, in her book, to cast him in the role of a “dearest grandparent”, Mandela was clearly much more to her. “I gave him my youth, and perhaps my future too,” she asserts.

The robust reaction not only of the Twitterati but also of the whole country to what many have described as La Grange’s outburst illustrates not only the fragility of race relations but also the vast trust and emotional investment South Africans have made in Mandela, in her and in her linkage to Mandela.

It is an emotional investment that is complex and nuanced. It is not only positive and not only negative. At one level La Grange invokes trust and admiration. She calls herself and is seen by many as the “young Afrikaner girl whose views and mind-set were changed by the greatest statesman of our time”.

Given the global status of Mandela as what Anthony Sampson, his biographer, has called “the universal hero”, his legacy and perpetual veneration are almost guaranteed. His funeral was a global event.

A hundred and one things have been and are still being named after him at home and abroad. There are institutions and events dedicated to his memory. And yet for our generation – those whose lifetime coincides in part with that of Mandela – institutions, events and artefacts are not enough.

Our historical proximity to his lifetime creates in us a hankering and a veritable thirst for the “real” Mandela – a thirst that cannot be fully assuaged by books, institutions and events alone. In this regard his closest comrades and family provide a potent human connection to him.

This is where La Grange, who “served him for almost 20 years … until he left us on December?5 2013”, comes in. Hers was such a special relationship with Mandela that many believe she should both have a special insight into his life, as a result of which she should be an embodiment of a new South African, and be a proxy for the “real” and “human” Mandela.

These sentiments are probably behind the anger and the disappointment with the views she shared on social media. Until Machel writes her Mandela book, La Grange is the closest to Mandela’s heart the world can come. Some may even suggest that La Grange should give us an angle to Mandela that not even Machel can.

But is it fair to “burden” La Grange with expectations of a complete political metamorphosis? Is it fair to expect that she would be the “human wire” that connects us to the spirit of Mandela? It could be argued that, in her book and on her website, she does set herself up along these lines.

And yet, given the nature of their relationship – marked strongly by tremendous gender, race, age and rank gaps – is it fair to expect her to achieve what Sampson has described as something very difficult, namely, to “penetrate the Mandela icon”?

Master of the art of political symbolism and imaging that Mandela was, could La Grange be anything more than a symbol of Afrikanerdom he needed for his national reconciliation project? When introducing her, Mandela would often say: “This is Zelda la Grange. She is my secretary and a real Afrikaner boeremeisie [farm girl].” And yet, it seems that the tears of their first meeting had touched something inside Mandela.

It is not an either/or but both. The symbolism of a boeremeisie at the heart of his office was important to Mandela. But he clearly seems to have cared for her in some special way. Elsewhere, she describes their relationship as one of co-dependency – a psychological notion that tends to have negative connotations. “My need to please fitted with his need for absolute loyalty,” she writes.

I have no reason to doubt when La Grange says her 19 years with Mandela were for her a slow metamorphosis that has fundamentally changed her outlook, as her website declares. La Grange ends her book with the words “to be continued”. More than suggesting a sequel to this book I hope she also means that her own metamorphosis is far from complete; that this too is to be continued.

She has clearly been touched and taught by Mandela but not in such a way as to cause her to commit what, for lack of a better phrase, we might call “race suicide”. Not yet. As her tweets showed, she still identifies very strongly with the “whites of South Africa”, Jan van Riebeeck and FW de Klerk.

For our part, as South Africans we need to begin withdrawing some of our emotional investment in the myth of Mandela the Saint.  Similarly, we should make several withdrawals from the bank of our expectations of those who lived and worked with him closely.

La Grange has shown us that she is an ordinary South African who, like many, is struggling with change inside and outside her, and trying to find a voice after the death of Mandela. One day she might even manage to forego the pleasure of criticising the easy target called Jacob Zuma and begin the difficult but necessary task of looking critically at Mandela himself. Who knows?

Though supposedly tongue in cheek, perhaps Mandela was not too far off each time he introduced her as a “real Afrikaner boeremeisie”.

  Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria, attached to the faculty of theology and the office of the vice-rector and principal. He is also a member of the South African Academy of Science. He writes in his personal capacity

Tinyiko Maluleke

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