It is, as they say in South Africa, a hell of a thing. Rags to riches, redemption, love: there’s a smattering of all the fairy-tale classics in the story of Zelda la Grange, a young Afrikaner girl who rose from middle-class obscurity, and a blindly ignorant apartheid past, to win the affection and trust of a black man who was once the most feared enemy of her family and her volk and is now, by global consent (volk not excluded), the greatest political figure alive. La Grange, now 37, has spent more time than anyone in the company of Nelson Mandela since he became president of South Africa 14 years ago. It is only his third wife, Graca Machel, who is with Mandela more than La Grange is.
La Grange has been his secretary, butler, aide-de-camp, spokesperson, travelling companion, confidante and – as she put it, and he agrees – honorary granddaughter, growing ever closer to him from the day she began work as an anonymous typist in the presidential office in 1994.
When he ended his presidential term in 1999 she became his de facto gatekeeper, a position which gave her a tremendous amount of power, as well as access to famous people everywhere. For there has not been – and there still is not – a political leader, a Hollywood actor, a pop singer, a famous footballer who has not longed to be photographed alongside him. Which has meant that everyone from Bill Clinton to Robert De Niro to Elton John to David Beckham has had, to some degree, to curry favour with her. And that when the time has come for the celebs to have an audience with the grand old man, she has invariably stood alongside, meeting them not as the hired help but, acknowledged with all due deference for what she is, as a member of Mandela’s innermost retinue.
Since Mandela formally retired – though, in truth, he only half retired – from public life in 2004, her vast, hitherto seven-day-a-week workload has diminished somewhat. She continues to organise his schedule and the two remain in perpetual contact. But she has had time to expand her activities beyond those limited to his personal agenda to include fundraising work on behalf of Mandela’s charitable foundations, notably 46664, the one named after his prison number during the 27 years he spent behind bars and whose purpose it is to combat Aids in South Africa, the country with the most victims of the disease, and globally. In this capacity she has been visiting London in recent months, taking a leading role in the organisation of Mandela’s 90th birthday festivities, the high point of which will be a concert in Hyde Park on 27 June that will bring together not only many of the leading names in contemporary music but world-famous politicians and actors, too.
It was on one of these visits that she agreed to meet me. I had been warned that she had been skittish about agreeing to do media interviews, that she was concerned certain boundaries should not be crossed – which put me doubly on my guard. I had met her briefly a few times before in the course of interviews and occasional encounters with Mandela and had formed an opinion of her as a formidable police sergeant. There had seemed to be a sweetness and a charm beneath the hard-nosed, hyper-protectiveness, but it had required a certain generosity on my part to detect.My surprise, then, was complete when on meeting her at a hotel in Park Lane where she and Mandela stay when they are in London, she came across from the moment we shook hands as an easy-going, self-assured woman, decidedly more attractive in every way than the one I remembered meeting in the course of an interview I had done with Mandela at his home in Johannesburg five years earlier. I found myself chatting instantly to her as if she were one of the many fine Afrikaner friends I had made during the six years I had spent in South Africa. The difference was that this hotel was her natural habitat and not mine, nor was it my old Afrikaner friends’, any more than it had remotely been hers before chance thrust her into Mandela’s orbit in August 1994, three months after he had been anointed as South Africa’s first ever black president.
My first question was how she had been brought up and where. She was brought up, she said, ‘in a suburb north of Pretoria, in a typical middle-class Afrikaner family, very unaware and uninterested in the political situation in the country; very comfortable in our own secluded life, very ordinary and very based on Calvinist Afrikaner values.’
Her father was a South African Breweries executive who later ran his own butchery; her mother was a teacher. They voted reflexively for the ruling National Party, apartheid’s inventors, and on Sundays they attended religious services at the local Dutch Reformed Church, after which they swam in the family pool. ‘We were very oblivious to what was going on politically, yes,’ said la Grange, not shy to confess that her family knew little and cared less about the plight of the country’s black majority, condemned by the apartheid laws to be voteless, third-class citizens shut off from the world-class standards of education, housing, jobs, beaches, parks, hotels, restaurants, public toilets that the whites jealously – and often brutally – preserved for themselves.
As was the norm for middle-class Afrikaners in the Seventies and Eighties, the family had a live-in black maid. They did not treat her badly, nor did they treat her especially well. La Grange was at pains to make it clear that as a child she showed not a glimmer of the incipient political sensibility that some white South Africans I have met claim to have had. Yet, as was very often the case with white children, she was fond of the family maid and spent many hours in her company. Real life, even in the grimmest apartheid days, was not all cut and dried, black and white.
‘She had a small separate room, a basic facility, as all domestic workers had in those days, but very often my mother had to come and get me from that room when it was time to go to bed. It was ironically, like a safe haven for me. Now, what’s also true is that she lived by the rules, the separate rules of those times in South Africa. She had a separate cup and mug and cutlery. Being a child you didn’t think anything of it, but she was not mistreated ever. She was not treated in an undignified way, and even today she calls my parents from time to time to inquire about our wellbeing and vice versa.’
The first time anything dimly resembling a political thought entered her mind was in 1985, when she was 14, and her brother was called up to do national service, which at that time often meant doing military duty in the black townships, repressing protestors sympathetic to the jailed Mandela’s banned African National Congress. ‘I did begin to ask questions then, because I wanted to know why my brother had to go and do this. I was told there was a war on but I didn’t know who the war was against.’ Some light of sorts was shed one day when she and her brother found themselves listening on the radio to the ogreish president at the time, PW Botha, announcing the imposition of a nationwide state of emergency. ‘I remember this moment vividly,’ said la Grange. ‘And I remember how afraid we were thinking that overnight the black people were going to come and kill us. That was how far our understanding of the situation went.’
Why, I asked, did the teenage la Grange think black people might want to kill her?
‘Because the one thing we knew was that it was always a question of black against white in South Africa. That had been dictated to us by the church and the schools and the system, and the history we were taught.’
Did the name Mandela mean anything to her at that time? ‘I think I first became aware of his existence around when the state of emergency was declared, more than 20 years after he had first gone to prison. I may have heard the name around then and that he was imprisoned on Robben Island – but for what, I had no idea. He could have stolen a car, to be honest,’ she said, bursting out laughing – guilt-free because Mandela, whom she spoke to about these things, had absolved her with his own laughter. ‘Yes, I often joke about it to demonstrate my own ignorance at the time,’ she said. ‘You grew up in a country where you didn’t know what was going on.’
How did she react, if at all, to Mandela’s release in February 1990? ‘When the announcement was made by President FW de Klerk that he was going to release political prisoners, well, I will never forget it. I was in the swimming pool, and my father came out and said, “Now we are in trouble”. And I said, “What?” And he said, “No, the terrorist is being freed”. I said, “Who is this?” He said, “Nelson Mandela”. You didn’t need ask any more questions, you just knew it was a person who represented fear, who drove fear, who was a threat of some sort …’
She was now 20 years old, thinking about her future. She fancied taking up acting but her father cautioned her that she would be as poor as a church mouse unless she made it in Hollywood, so it might be best if she considered a back-up option. ‘For once I listened to him and so I studied to become an executive secretary.’ In due course she did as so many other young Afrikaners from Pretoria did, she got a job in the government bureaucracy. First as a typist in the state expenditure department and then as a secretary. In 1994, as the country underwent its revolutionary political transition, la Grange’s main concerns were financial, centring on how to pay for the rent on her flat. She had to find a job closer to home and a typist position became available in the president’s office, working not with Mandela but with his economics department, and she applied for it. But when she went for an interview at the Union Buildings she was buttonholed by Mandela’s private secretary, Mary Mxadana, who was desperate for people to work alongside her. Before she knew it, she had become a typist on the president’s personal staff.
‘I had been working there two weeks – this was in August 1994 – when I ran into him for the first time as I was going into Mary’s office to fetch a document. He came out as I entered and I shivered. By that time I had started reading a bit about him. I knew that he was a friendly man. I had seen him greeting other people, but I had never had any encounters with him. But then I ran into him, as I say, by accident and he started speaking Afrikaans to me, which I didn’t understand immediately because the last thing I expected was for him to speak in my own language to me. His Afrikaans was perfect but I was in such a state that I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was shivering.’
Why? ‘Because I was scared of him, not knowing what to expect of him, whether he was going to dismiss me, humiliate me … and instantly it was that feeling of guilt that all Afrikaners carry with them.’ Guilt? As regards black people in general, or him in particular? ‘No, him in particular, because you could see he wasn’t 60, he was 75 at the time, and you could see he was old and the thing that immediately crosses your mind is, “I sent this man to jail”. My people sent this man to jail! I was part of this even though I couldn’t vote. I was part of this, of taking from a person like him his whole life away. And then I started crying. And then he shook my hand, and he held my hand.’
Actual, full-on crying? ‘Yes, well … not sobbing, but I was very emotional, and yes, shedding tears. I couldn’t stop it. It all came together, everything. Probably also not knowing – I was 23, 24 at the time – not knowing what I should do. I’d never met any president in my life. But he just held my hand and he continued to speak to me, still holding my hand, and then when he saw I was still so emotional, he put his other hand on my shoulder and said, “No, no, no … this is not necessary, you’re overreacting a bit”. I settled down, maybe smiled at that, and then he started asking me questions. Where had I grown up? What my parents did? We ended up talking for about five minutes. But it wasn’t special treatment he was giving me. He would talk to all members of the staff, black and white, in the same way when he met them, asking them about their backgrounds, their families …’
It wasn’t, as la Grange said, an instant connection. It was not until the following year, 1995, that the decisive big break came.
‘I went into his office one day to serve him tea and he said, “I want you to go to Japan with me.” I didn’t understand much about the mechanics of government then, to say the least, and my response was, “Thank you very much Mr President …” [she guffawed hilariously at the recollection] ” … but unfortunately I don’t have money to go to Japan!” And he just burst out laughing, because I was so naive. Then he said “No, no you go and see Professor Gerwel [the director general of the presidency], he will explain payment and protocol to you”. It was obviously, as I understood later, a case of Madiba [the honorary tribal name by which Mandela is largely known] being the great strategist that he is. He knew it was important at that time to show the world we were going to embrace all cultures, we were going to have white people working with us.’
That’s true, I said to her. People have sometimes chosen to see him as a sort of accidental president, a benign Chauncey Gardner type full of goodness but no guile. But nothing could be further from the truth. He is, as his friend and official biographer, the late Anthony Sampson, put it, ‘a master of political imagery’, alert and alive to symbolism’s power of persuasion.
Yes, yes, that’s him, a hundred per cent,’ said la Grange. ‘So we went to Japan. It was a holiday for me. We went on to South Korea and I did nothing! Just pitched up at dinners while other people did all the work. It was really just a strategic move to take me along. I did absolutely no work and just got introduced to heads of state and government, emperors and a list of important people, as if I were relevant to the existence of the planet! No typing, no work at all.’
But after that trip things changed. ‘He started calling me to do more and more duties for him personally, to type letters, to be present at meetings to take notes. Then in 1996 he insisted that I go with him on his state visit to France – still being the typist, but this time he did not take any of the other secretaries. I suddenly found myself having to perform the only secretary’s duties abroad. And this time I really had to work and learn how things were done, what a state visit consists of, what we have to do. And after that I got more involved, with things around his private life, for example. And he would insist on me going here, there and everywhere with him – for example, when he went to visit a typical Afrikaner community, he wanted me to be there with him. In his eyes, I personified the typical Boer, and that was just fine with me. I was learning.’
This must have been way beyond a nine-to-five job now? ‘Yes, yes. I was working all hours, yes. My title was changed to assistant private secretary. As president he’d work very hard. He’d be up at one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning taking and making phone calls, sometimes right through the night and never catching up on lost sleep. I was always there, quick to respond. I could trace anyone on earth by telephone in a record time. It helped that I was at an age where I had lots of energy and no commitments other than my work.’
La Grange’s speed of response was what initially marked her out as special for Mandela, a man who is a stickler for punctuality. ‘He’s always been very punctual, does not like to waste other people’s time. That’s probably the only thing he has a real dislike for, people coming late for meetings and any kind of dishonesty. I share that. We both had the same urgency. I also had that very Afrikaner thing of respect for the orders of the boss, respect for elderly people, a submissive role before the person in charge, and I was very happy with that because that was my upbringing. But maybe, yes, the important thing was that I had a better response time than my peers and I was meticulously paying attention to detail.’