Zelda la Grange was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a three-year executive-secretary diploma at the University of Technology, Pretoria, in 1992. In 1994, she became assistant to the private secretary of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela; in 1997, she herself became one of the president’s private secretaries. Following President Mandela’s retirement from the presidency in 1999 until his death in 2013, la Grange served him in various capacities, including as executive personal assistant, spokesperson, aide-de-camp and manager of his private office. In 2014, she published her bestselling memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela.
Zelda la Grange was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
Humanity is all that matters – period. If we can acknowledge and respect each other’s humanity, we will be able to see that we have more in common than sets us apart. If we can focus on that, we can achieve anything. Everyone on earth craves respect, and it’s by respecting our enemies that we make them our friends. The biggest lesson Nelson Mandela taught me is that it’s when we are able to remove ideology from consideration that we can connect with one another.
I was born in apartheid South Africa and grew up in a very conservative Afrikaans community; my immediate environment supported the apartheid system, and my immediate future was dictated by it. My parents and their contemporaries were incredibly religious and close-minded; they weren’t exposed to the lives of non-white South Africans outside our community. So, from a very young age, children in our community became racist by default. You didn’t question a thing – you bought into the system and you believed the propaganda you were fed. I was taught to believe that, because of my white skin, I was superior to all people of colour, irrespective of their beliefs, status and intellects, or of the similarities between us. It’s unbelievable to think of it now, but I felt superior because I was white.
It was only when I was challenged that I came to realise how wrong the system was and how it had poisoned my outlook. When Nelson Mandela – whom we call Madiba – was inaugurated, the Afrikaner community was overwhelmed with fear. For decades, the apartheid government had told us that we needed to protect ourselves from the non-white masses, so we had no idea how the new system would affect us. At that point, I was working in the Department of State Expenditure. We had only just been exposed to non-white government employees, and I still very much believed I was superior to my non-white colleagues. I was living with my parents and wanted to work closer to home, so, a move to the government’s Union Buildings was purely logistical; in 1994, I applied for a job in Madiba’s office, never thinking I would meet him. After all, I was a twenty-three-year-old boeremeisie – Afrikaans girl – from a racist, conservative background, and I had been against the abolishment of apartheid. Nonetheless, I was offered a job working under Madiba’s private secretary – I assumed it would be in an office of two hundred people, but there were only five of us! Two weeks into the job, I nearly bumped into Madiba as he was leaving the office; I found myself face to face with this man my people feared, and I didn’t know what to expect of him. I didn’t know it then, but that moment was the start of my metamorphosis. Madiba did the complete opposite of what I expected; he extended his hand and began speaking to me in Afrikaans. He asked me about my childhood and my upbringing, and asked what I was doing in his office – luckily, he didn’t ask me who I voted for! All the while, he spoke to me in the language of his oppressor, never once letting go of my hand. I expected hostility from him, but all he showed me was love and respect. I was so undeserving of his kindness. It makes me so emotional to think about that moment, because it changed my life.
I realised that everything my people believed was false. I started questioning everything about my life: my upbringing, my religion, my parents and the system that I had bought into. I had to examine the privilege that had isolated and shielded me from the suffering of others. That day, a whole new world I had been completely unaware of was opened up to me. That was Madiba’s gift: he could connect with people by stripping away their layers – their religion, their history, their ideology, their baggage – and seeing them purely as a person. And he didn’t only free people of colour who had been oppressed for so long – he also freed the oppressors from their ignorance.
So, it’s humanity that matters to me. I’m constantly asking myself how I can best extend kindness. On both sides of any divide stand human beings and I truly believe that, through kindness, we can find middle ground. I believe that if we can consider the lived experiences and suffering of others, we will be able to connect with one another.
Q. What brings you happiness?
My deepest sense of happiness comes from those moments when I have the time and the freedom to think, in my own company. Every now and then, Madiba would say that he missed prison. People would be almost disgusted. They’d say, ‘You can’t say that; it sounds like you want to go back there.’ And he would respond by saying, ‘No, no. I miss having time to think.’ Our lives have become so crowded with issues and challenges that time spent alone has become a luxury. But we can’t address the problems of the world if we take contemplation for granted.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Any kind of suffering. Watching a body losing its ability to function is just terrible; when Madiba’s life was coming to an end, it was incredibly difficult to watch someone so strong in life degenerate.
It’s also miserable to consider that, in today’s world of abounding luxury, development and technology, there are people starving in poverty. I find it incredibly painful to contemplate what is happening in South Africa. I’ve seen first-hand what the sacrifices of fighting a liberation struggle can do to a family. People sacrificed their families and personal lives to free South Africa – many sacrificed their lives – yet twenty-three years later, in 2017, people are still dying of hunger. How is that possible? When I look at the corruption, mismanagement, and unethical and immoral behaviour of the current African National Congress government, I wonder whether all the sacrifices our struggle heroes made were in vain. And I wonder how we rebound from where we are now.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I would start by transforming our education system – it’s the only way out of this. And I mean not just by granting access to education, but access to quality education.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?