Zelda la Grange experience’s confirms that life is about the people we meet. Born into a middle-class Afrikaner family in the 1970s, she had a happy childhood and went on holidays three times a year.
And she was raised with the idea that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. That changed the day she met him and shook his hand.
“If you are born in this context of privilege, you do not question the system, you support it and you are a part of it,” Ms la Grange says of the Apartheid regime, which lasted from 1948 until 1994 when Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
At 45, the tall and charismatic woman who was “Madiba’s” closest confidante, has shared intimate stories of life with one of the century’s greatest political leaders in her memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela.
Addressing a crowd at the Roslyn Packer Theatre on Thursday, Ms la Grange quietly admitted she was a racist at the time when South Africa was segregated on the basis of skin colour. “In my mind, I was superior at every level to my black compatriots,” she said. “I was richer, cleaner, more beautiful and more intelligent.”
The country girl had been raised by a black maid, who lived in a little room at the back of the family home. “I was closer to her than to my mother, but I never questioned the situation, nor the fact that she did not use the same cutlery as we did; she did not even have water and electricity,” she said. “As a young girl, my ambition was to get married and have three boys – nothing political at all.”
Zelda la Grange first heard of Nelson Mandela the day he was released in 1990, after nearly 30 years in prison. “My father came to tell me that we were in trouble, because the terrorist had been released,” she said. Although she didn’t understand, she knew she did not want apartheid to end because she felt “secure and safe in this system”.
Nonetheless, in 1994, Ms la Grange started work in the presidential office as a junior typist. Interested in the location, she secured the job due to a staff shortage. She says the black secretary was desperate and needed help; “black or white she didn’t mind, she just wanted a hand”.
Two weeks later, she met President Mandela. “I thought I would have to explain why I voted ‘no’ in the Apartheid Referendum; he was the president, I believed he knew everything.”
The then 23-year-old girl went to shake Mandela’s hand – but she couldn’t understand what he was saying, and asked him to repeat. When he did, she realised he was speaking Afrikaans: “My own language, for me it was not a language the enemy was supposed to speak.”
After that encounter, Ms la Grange felt herself changing. “I started questioning lots of things – my parents, my grandparents, my education and my religion.” These changes forced her to put some distance between herself and her more conservative friends. “What I am are the choices I made; anyone can change at any stage of their life.”
She confirmed that Mandela’s strategy was to include Afrikaners on his team. He wanted to show his oppressors that he forgave them. “He had a huge capacity of forgiveness, he was like all human beings with his prejudices and failures, but the difference is that he was fighting every day against that.”
Nelson Mandela died at home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. His name is synonymous with the triumph of human spirit, and he remains a symbol of honesty, courage, and simplicity.
Ms la Grange, who served as his secretary, manager and personal assistant, and, finally, confidante, said Mr Mandela changed her heart and taught her respect. “He used to say that there is a soul with values behind everyone, we have to see this soul and not just the titles,” she said.