Zelda la Grange grew up in South Africa as a white Afrikaner who supported the rules of segregation. Yet just a few years after the end of Apartheid she would become Nelson Mandela’s trusted assistant, growing to cherish the man she had been taught was the enemy. Here she pays tribute to Madiba.
About two weeks into my time at the Presidency the President was scheduled to be in the office for the first time. By this time Mary had told me a little about the President, what type of person he was and that he was kind but disciplined. Afrikaners grow up with a sense of respect for any authority and before having met him, I had respect for him, purely because he was the President of the country.
He hadn’t done anything publicly to prove the contrary and I therefore had no reason to disrespect him.
From my early arrival at the office that morning I could sense an unusual tension within the building but at the same time a kind of excitement. The police guarding our private office were alert and their uniforms neatly pressed, and soon a team of men in dark suits arrived presenting themselves as the advance team of the President’s bodyguards. It was then time for the President to arrive and I closed the door leading to my office so as not to disturb anything that might be happening in the corridors. From passing footsteps and ructions I gathered that the President had arrived and he went past my office down the corridor into his office. Guests arrived to see him and were taken to his office without delay. They were all punctual and everything flowed with military precision. I sat quietly in my chair, awaiting instructions from anyone. I had noticed that the bodyguards were all armed and I was tense and cautious not to make any sudden move that could be misinterpreted. It was my first encounter with armed people in close proximity, and it made me nervous.
A few hours later Mary asked me to type something and bring it to her office once I was ready. So I did. I was looking at the piece of paper in front of me when I nearly bumped into President Nelson Mandela as he was exiting Mary’s office into the corridor surrounded by bodyguards. He extended his hand first to shake mine; I was confused and not sure whether it was proper for me to greet him. I said, ‘Good morning, Mr Mandela.’ One doesn’t really know what to do at that point except cry. Which I did. It was all too much. I was sobbing. He then spoke to me but I didn’t understand him and was completely in shock. I had to say ‘Excuse me Mr President’ for him to repeat what he had just said to me, and after gathering my thoughts or guts – I’m not sure which – I realized that he addressed me in Afrikaans. My home language.
He was visibly old and appeared kind. I focused on the wrinkles on his face and his warm, sincere smile. He spoke with a caring voice and in a kind manner and asked me my name. I was ready to pull back my hand after shaking his but he held on. I could feel the texture of his hand on mine and I started perspiring. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hold this black man’s hand. I wanted him to let go but he didn’t and he asked where I came from and where I worked. I wasn’t sure whether to answer in Afrikaans or English and cannot remember which I chose, but we conversed in a mixture of Afrikaans and English. I was completely overtaken by emotion and couldn’t continue. I then had a feeling of guilt that swept over me. I felt guilty that this kindly spoken man with gentle eyes and generosity of spirit spoke to me in my own language after ‘my people’ had sent him to jail for so many years. I instantly regretted voting ‘No’ in the referendum. How do you correct all of that prejudice in five minutes? Suddenly, I wanted to apologize. I hadn’t given any thought to what twenty-seven years of imprisonment would be like, but I knew I was not even twenty-seven years of age. I was a mere twenty-three, about to turn twenty-four and I couldn’t comprehend an entire lifetime in prison.
Mr Mandela noticed that I was unable to continue our conversation and still held onto my hand as he put his left hand on my shoulder and tapped it while he said, ‘It’s OK, calm down, I think you are overreacting.’ I was firstly not used to someone being so direct to me to tell me that I’m overreacting and, secondly, I was embarrassed that it was a President telling me this. I calmed down and he was obviously in a hurry so we parted. His last words were ‘I am happy to meet you and hope to see you again.’ As we parted I thought: Ye, right. How can I be important to a President? After all, it’s my people that put him through all that suffering.
I was in shock for the entire day and went home, telling my parents that I met the President today, and what a nice man he appeared to be. He spoke to me in Afrikaans. My parents didn’t ask any questions and continued doing whatever they were busy with at the time, unaffected by my announcement. Probably used to me exaggerating a bit, I got the impression that they thought I was lying. I went to sleep puzzled by our encounter, not knowing where my thoughts or feelings were about this gentleman, perceived by my family and community to be a terrorist.
The next day I interrogated Mary about the fact that the President was so fluent in Afrikaans. She explained that he had learned Afrikaans in prison and he did so purposefully to communicate with his warders. It only struck me later that he obviously also charmed the apartheid leaders with his Afrikaans whenever he met them during negotiations. It is quite an amusing experience when events override what your brain expects. The last thing any Afrikaner would expect from Nelson Mandela was that he spoke to you in Afrikaans. It all became clear when he told me much later that, ‘When you speak to a man you speak to his head but when you speak to him in his language you speak to his heart.’ And that is exactly what he did. I came to understand that by learning the language of the warders he could almost seduce them. Afrikaans, being the language of the oppressor, was a much-hated language at the time and synonymous with the apartheid regime. I later also learned that Afrikaans was imposed as the main language for black education in 1974. This resulted in the Soweto uprising in 1976 in which about 20,000 black students took part, and although official figures estimated that the uprising resulted in 176 deaths it is widely believed that up to 700 students died during the protest. Black people were not accounted for in South Africa in those years and therefore official figures and estimates never correlated as there was no existing official register.
In the weeks that followed I saw the President at a distance on a few occasions as he passed in and out of the office. I concentrated on my typing and supporting Mary and never bothered to be around or be seen when he was in the office. Instead, I befriended the bodyguards, black and white. Some of them were very caring about me and inquisitive about my background. I was never sure whether they were checking on me or not, asking questions out of pure interest or whether it was as part of their job to establish any threat I may pose to the President.
Every time the President passed my office, I ensured that my door was closed so as to avoid having another emotional interaction with him. I literally hid away when I heard him approaching and only saw his back as he was passing the office. I was happy with his presence in the office though, as it brought about some excitement and a list of interesting visitors. I was more intrigued by him than by the visitors and hardly took notice of them, apart from knowing that some of them had names I recognized from the media or magazines.
I do recall the newly crowned Miss South Africa visiting, Basetsana Makgalamela. I had some practice before she arrived in pronouncing her surname and managed by the time she arrived. She met with the President and we were called by Mary after the meeting to meet Miss South Africa.
Extract taken from Good Morning Mr Mandela, Zelda La Grange (Penguin). For a chance to win a copy, enter the competition on Goodreads.
Image of Zelda la Grange, credit Nick Boulton, Destiny magazine.