Oprah Winfrey who often paid visits to him once said: “I feel that I don’t know, nor have I ever met, read, or heard of another human being quite like Nelson Mandela. The courage and humility, it’s the combination of the two… that he embodied in order to change a nation and to impact a world.”
Winfrey like many others well-known in society have marked their experiences with Tata Madiba along the way, with some often drawing to experiences he afforded them at one time or the other.
But, for his long-time Personal Assistant Zelda la Grange, her 19 journey with the father of the nation was one that was marked by fate.
La Grange, who turns 45 this year, may have related her experiences over the years more than once. When asked about herself, there is not any experience which she does not relate to her former boss.
There is also one lesson drawn from her years with Madiba, she says at a hotel in Irene, outside of Pretoria where we meet her.
According to La Grange it is that: “Things will happen within the way it is meant to happen – you will be at the right place at the right time at any given point in your life.”
La Grange, you see, first entered the Union Buildings after applying for a job as a typist at Jay Naidoo’s office. She was then approached to take up the position as an assistant typist within Madiba’s office. She was responsible among other duties to type up the President’s programs.
It was there that the her path in life was laid.
“I look at my own life and say why me? Surely I didn’t deserve this? I haven’t found the answer to this, I worked hard, I will never deny.
“I gave my every hour and minute to that job. I could have gone to his house and had tea with him whenever I wanted, I never did that. I didn’t suffocate him.”
She remarks that her mother becomes angry when La Grange says: “I say this sometimes to her, that one life cannot be this perfect. I say to my mother, you must not expect me to become a 70 or 80 year old. Nobody who has had this life, has the privilege of aging. I am not saying I am going to die soon, but you know – everyday now is as if, oh? I have another day?”
La Grange is smartly dressed and she tells us of her busy schedule. Her diary is packed with upcoming appearances and events. She however jokes at the end of the interview when she asks: “Do you have a job for me?”
On the topic of jobs, she says that being the PA to Mandela wasn’t one that was easy.
“What people forget is that you get paid a salary by that person, that person employs you. And I got very sensitive and distracted sometimes with people making comments that I was overprotective. But this person pays my salary and you know, as long as I do what makes him happy, surely he had the right to get rid of me if he chose. And he didn’t for 19 years, so I must have done something right.
“I knew after a while what he was comfortable with. But being Nelson Mandela, you can’t tell people no don’t – I want space – I also had to make peace with that this job was not going to win me a popularity contest.
“Everyday was a struggle. But who do you listen to – the public, the media, or do you listen to your boss? Thinking back I don’t know how I survived. Madiba was never part of the pressure – he was almost an escape. I could sit with him and say, yoh, these people are difficult and he would say to me deal with it , like that – and I could walk out and not feel the pressure at all.”
La Grange never knew Madiba before his release having grown up in a conservative Afrikaaner community.
“But one day, I was in the swimming pool when my father came outside and said, ‘Nelson Mandela is being released and now we are in trouble’.
I asked why? And he said: ‘he is a terrorist’. I said oh, and continued swimming because it really didn’t affect my life.”
Gardening is something La Grange holds close to her heart. Watching something grow is the most rewarding, she says.