LSE alumna Francesca Washtell calls Good Morning, Mr Mandela a heartfelt tribute to Nelson Mandela from his long-time personal assistant, Zelda la Grange.
After his release from prison in 1990 and throughout the rest of his life, Nelson Mandela devoted an extraordinary amount of time to recording his experiences and political ideas, leaving behind most notably the memoirs Long Walk to Freedom (1995)and Conversations With Myself (2010). Now, almost a year after his death, others have inevitably begun making their own reflections both on his life and his effect on theirs.
The first, and likely to be one of the most powerful, of these outside contributions was made earlier this year by Mandela’s former personal assistant, Zelda la Grange. Her own memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, is a heartfelt tribute to her former employer, who plucked her out of obscurity from his office typing pool and worked with her closely until his death in 2013.
La Grange’s journey from a twenty-three-year-old typist in the Presidential Office in 1994 to a personal assistant who worked closely alongside him for nineteen years has a certain storybook quality to it. She grew up in a white, Afrikaner household that staunchly supported apartheid and was openly hostile to the transition to a non-white government. Yet, within a couple of years of working on Mandela’s team, she had steadily transformed from a self-admitting racist who had internalised the views of the community in which she grew up to becoming an unswervingly loyal assistant to the first black president.
As her opinions changed, she noticed she slowly dropped friends who tried to stave off the post-1994 reality. Her family’s views evolved alongside her career too, as they became fully supportive of both la Grange’s job and Mandela himself. A large part of la Grange’s story rests on this liberal blossoming from her right-wing upbringing and the ripple effect that working for Mandela had on her views and those around her.
Fortunately, however, this is not the whole story. Ever since his release from prison, it is clear that Mandela lived and breathed his work with an urgency that belies the twenty-seven years he spent incarcerated, knowing that once he was freed time would be both precious and finite. Although he had many staff around him, la Grange was by far his closest associate, embodying her job as personal assistant (for which he personally requested her) once he retired by accompanying him not just in his work but also on holiday and, at times, almost being an executive carer.
Because of this proximity to him in his work and personal life, she captures an intimacy that few others, if any, will be able to match in future. Her account strips away the Mandela of public ceremonies, inspirational quotes and global issues, and instead shows the Mandela who existed in between meetings with all his idiosyncrasies, humanising him in the process.
The Mandela she presents is one who sometimes felt so far removed from normal life that he would make up excuses to go to a local shopping mall- most frequently to buy a pen or a dictionary- just to be surrounded by the normality he was desperate to experience, having been robbed of all anonymity. It is also the Mandela who would take it upon himself to tell others that they need to lose weight, arranging private meetings (much to the dismay of his staff) and solemnly explaining to his guest that they “need to reduce”.
As well as shedding light on the other facets of Mandela, la Grange is one of the only people able to document his third marriage to Mozambican Graca Machel. Machel was never fully accepted by many of those close to Mandela, and at times openly snubbed. But the joy their companionship brought to his life and the encouragement she gave him to try new experiences shines through, in what will probably be one of the only accounts to exist of their relationship.
La Grange is willing to admit that her nineteen-year working relationship with Mandela was also a nineteen-year sacrifice of many aspects of her own life. In one admirably candid paragraph she acknowledges that beginning such an immersive job from such an early age means she “still lack[s] the emotional capability to do ordinary things”. Including a few deeply personal observations such as this in many ways saves the book, which, despite its subject matter, is often dry and probably too long.
A significant portion of the book is also given over to the final years of his life, as family members and the ANC took over in a way that alienated some of those closest to Mandela (who he himself had chosen to be around him) such as la Grange, Graca Machel and other loyal friends and colleagues. This forced separation from the man she had happily devoted her career to, on his invitation, has clearly left a bitter taste in her mouth and eclipsed some of her earlier career joy. Ultimately though the uniqueness of her perspective outweighs other drawbacks in the quality of writing, making it an interesting and necessary account of Mandela’s presidency and later years.
Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange, is published by Allen Lane, 2014