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Sunday, September 7, 2014


Through Zelda la Grange, I feel I have known Nelson Mandela. (Review by Caroline Smart)

In her childhood years, Zelda la Grange would play opposite her grandmother’s home on the lawns in front of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Coming from a staunch Afrikaans family and community which supported the rules of segregation, she would have been astonished to be told that she would later become the highly valued and efficient support of the first black president of South Africa.

By taking a young white Afrikaans woman on as his personal secretary, and later his PA, Nelson Mandela send a powerful message to the world – and particularly to the South African community at large – that reconciliation is possible and effective.

In her book, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, Zelda la Grange tells of her life at Madiba’s side, organising his daily schedules, handling complicated protocol, travelling with him to the far corners of the earth while he was President and later representing the Nelson Mandela Foundation. In his advancing years, there was always the constant battle to protect a frail old man from the thousands of people who wanted to get close to him whenever he ventured forth in public.

The book is told with such sincerity and honesty, you feel you’ve travelled their journey with them. It contains a fascinating collection of anecdotes, often told at her expense, and charts her relationship at his side for 19 years.

The process is informative, inspiring, touching and very funny at times. She recalls endearing moments such as when she burst into tears the first time she met him when she moved into the Presidential Office as a secretary in 1994. After all, this was a young woman whose father then considered Mandela a terrorist. Another reason was that he spoke to her in Afrikaans. She recalls one of his sayings: “Talk to a person in their head and if you talk in their language you speak to their heart.”

At another time she is thrown into a panic at a major official banquet without knowing which knives and forks to use. There is a delightful memory of attending a performance of the Bolshoi ballet and, in the silence of the moment between two scenes, he turned round to her and, in his strong carrying voice, said: ”Zeldina, you and I should be doing that!”

Madiba affectionately called her Zeldina and she freely admits how much she values the fact that he shaped her life and opened her mind to non-racial co-existence. She pays homage to Graรงa Machel (her “second mum”) and happily relates the times the three of them spent together.

The sad part of the book deals with the fact that in his last months, a certain sector of the Mandela family refused her access to her beloved “Khulu” (grandfather) in hospital and later at his home. At his funeral service, she had to sit outside on the grass. Her despair at being separated from him makes for poignant reading and who knows what Madiba himself must have felt at no longer having his trusty and devoted Zeldina at his side. Situations such as these happen all too often when power struggles become disrespectful of the wishes of an individual, once they are no longer able to control their own life.

In the full five pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book, La Grange plays homage to all those who blessed her life in one way or another. It reads like a veritable Who’s Who of world-famous and illustrious people whom she has met and proudly come to call friends. They range from Bill and Hillary Clinton and Desmond Tutu to Morgan Freeman and Naomi Campell to the unknown man who comforted her as she sat sobbing at Madiba’s funeral.

This a book that you can have on hand to browse through at will. Pick it up anywhere and you will find something interesting and memorable. It would make a perfect present for anyone who respected Nelson Mandela and all that he stood for. Remember, Christmas is not far away!

I once met Madiba at a chance meeting – an encounter that took no more than three minutes. The general aura of his presence, his smiling eyes, kind smile and strong (“strong” being an understatement!) grasp of my hand made me think:”You are an extraordinary man and I would really like to know you better.” Thanks to Zelda la Grange, I feel I have achieved that.

Good Morning, Mr Mandela is published in paperback by Penguin Books. Recommended price R295. ISBN: 9780241014943 – Caroline Smart