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Nelson mandela: Minding Madiba


In 2007, Sunday Times social writer Gwen Gill sat down with Nelson Mandela's spokesperson and assistant, Zelda la Grange, to talk about her experiences

"I'm paid to be rude to people," jokes the attractive blonde I'm chatting to. "I'm a buffer between Madiba and the people who clamour for his attention."

The blonde is Zelda la Grange, Nelson Mandela's treasured personal assistant, the woman who for years the media used to describe as his bodyguard or minder, though this was never her role.
Her journey to this position of trust started in 1994. She was a senior ministerial typist working in the Department of State Expenditure. The department had moved to Centurion, and she wanted a job nearer to her parents' home north of Pretoria. She applied for a job in the office of the then Minister of Posts and Communications, Jay Naidoo, but somehow the application form landed on one of Madiba's advisers' desks.

She has no idea how, but she was offered a job, a very junior one, doing admin.
Her role got bigger when, in 1995, President Mandela expressed a wish for her to be part of a delegation to Japan with him. Zelda reckons this was a strategic move to show he had a really rainbow delegation by including a white Afrikaans-speaking woman. A year later, she was included in a state visit to France, and after that she was used for more executive duties and became one of his private secretaries.

"It hasn't always been fun. It's very intense, though Madiba is great to work for. But there's the politics -  and the egos around him. Everyone in a position like mine seems to have the same problem. I talk things over with Doug Band, my counterpart in Bill Clinton's office, and he has a similar roller-coaster ride. I wish everyone could have the wonderful opportunities I've had, but it isn't all roses.

"My worst experience is when people try to exploit him - sometimes he doesn't see people's hidden agendas. I'm known as The Witch - I try to protect him."

So what's a typical day in Zelda's working life?
First thing in the morning, she gets his office ready for the day and checks his diary. "I make sure things are organised exactly the way he likes them.
"We get about 50 requests of various types every day - they come by phone, e-mail, letter and fax, and they come from people who want to see him, want money or ask for an endorsement of some kind.
"Requests for interviews are easy - he never does them anymore and so we just respond that it's an 'in principle' decision.
"Madiba doesn't use a computer … and staff go through correspondence. The CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor, Jakes Gerwel, chairman of the foundation, my two assistants and I talk over the requests and about a third of those we receive can be considered.
"When he travels it's sometimes by commercial flight (first class, of course) and sometimes privately.  However, he does not travel regularly these days.

"Away from work, he's happiest when Mrs Machel is around and he really enjoys the company of people of his own generation - Albertina Sisulu, fellow Rivonia trialist Andrew Mlangeni, fellow Robben Islander Ahmed Kathrada and Helen Suzman."
What would Zelda rate as her best experience with her boss?
Her most fantastic moment came with the announcement in Zurich that South Africa was to stage the 2010 World Cup.
And the worst? Walter Sisulu's death and Mandela’s son Makgatho's death from Aids in January 2005.

"When Makgatho passed away, I felt that he'd given everything and then life dealt him another blow. But, as the saying goes, life gives you what you can handle. I don't think any other person would have dealt with life the way Madiba does, despite the challenges it threw at him."             
Who does he enjoy meeting?

"Not necessarily celebrities, and most of all he enjoys unknown people who've achieved something special or come from somewhere he's familiar with. You should see him when he meets a South African abroad - if it's someone from the Eastern Cape, it's so special for him.
"But he doesn't see a lot of people these days - he is not overexposed the way he was before. But he's still in demand because folks won't accept that he can't, won't, do things.
"Remember how he said a couple of years back, 'Don't call me, I'll call you.'  Sadly, they still do."
So who gets invited to the house? "Just a few people, family and friends, to socialise. Although he is retired we want him to be included, not excluded, and it's important that a person's mind is stimulated.

"So he doesn't just sit at home, but keeps himself occupied with things that he prefers doing - in particular the work of his three charities: the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. 

"His grandson  Ndaba, who's studying political science in Pretoria, comes home at weekends (along with other grandchildren). If Madiba has a successor, there are grandchildren to step into his shoes.
"I'm particularly fond of Ndaba and Mandla.  Mandla is the ruling chief in Mvezo. They are both charming and handsome, and I can see a lot of their grandfather in them."
They are just two of more than 35 Mandela grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Who has Zelda enjoyed meeting during her time with the great man?
She's fond of hedge fund manager and charity fundraiser Arki Busson - he's the father of Elle Macpherson's children. He runs the ARK charity, which has given antiretrovirals to 33 000 South Africans.

Then there's Doug Band, her opposite number with Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Clintons themselves, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (he has a great sense of humour), the Dutch royals, particularly Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his Argentinean wife, Maxima, and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
"They are all interesting people and their status hasn't made them unapproachable or suddenly have different public and private persona."
And will there be a book of "I worked for Madiba" memoirs one day?
"I'm not sure I have the right - it's not my story, it's his. Maybe I'll write it down for my children - and I do want children."

Favourite Food:
Xhosa traditional food; enjoys meat, especially oxtail; doesn't eat much starch, such as bread.

Favourite TV programme:
The news - and he's handy with the remote, switching from one bulletin to another, commenting on how differently stations handle stories.

Favourite books:
Biographies, the writing of CJ Langenhoven, books about indigenous African people - and he reads all the newspapers except the more sensational tabloids.

Favourite places:
Qunu in the Eastern Cape, home in Joburg and his wife Graça Machel's house in Mozambique. He doesn't go to Qunu as much as he used to as there are great demands on him there. His grandson Mandla is now the ruling chief of Mvezo, where Madiba was born, which is close to Qunu.

Favourite singers:
Abigail Kubeka, Miriam Makeba and Dorothy Masuka, among others - he loves music from their era.

How Zelda sums him up:
A very good listener who allows everyone to have their full say before putting forward his opinion. He appreciates simplicity and innocence, and the inner child in him loves children. He sticks to decisions once he has made up his mind. He's a truly good human being.