Nelson Mandela is often held up as the leader that people most admire. Zelda La Grange, a white Afrikaner woman, spent her life working at his right-hand side as his personal assistant. Here she describes his great qualities and those of other world leaders she witnessed.
Q. You were a young white Afrikaner woman who grew up in a household with black servants. What were your views on race at that time?
We were brought up to believe that we were superior to black people and that was my general mindset towards black people. That was however only for as far as black people outside our house. I adored the black lady that brought me up but that relationship was based on a master – servant premise. I was too young to really understand the implications of my thought processes. Apartheid was kept alive by playing on people’s fears and as white kids we were brought to believe that all blacks were to be feared.
Q. Tell us how you came to be working for Mandela?
I applied for a job in the Office of the President but was offered a position as an assistant to the President’s private secretary while busy with the interview for the original application.
Q. When you first met Mandela, how did you win his trust and why do you think he chose you to be his right-hand woman?
I don’t think the trust was won immediately. He practised that if you respect a person and truly believed that someone could be trusted, you generate the trust. He chose me because we shared a sense of urgency, I was completely dedicated to my job, committed and loyal to him and my work and that worked for what he required in that position.
Q. What was Mandela like to work for?
He was a disciplined person who paid a lot of importance on ethics and the principles he stood for: equality, democracy, freedom. These were traits he required from all those who worked for him. He was a tough taskmaster and could be stubborn but as long as you were honest, fair and logical in your approach to any problem it was easy to work for him.
Q. Were there any particularly memorable meetings between Mandela and someone else that stick in your mind because of what was said or what was done?
Yes quite a few. The one that first comes to mind is his meeting with President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Mandela said to Clinton: “You have made a mistake and you have apologised. If a person realises that he has made a mistake and has done everything in his power to show that he truly regrets such an incident there should be no reason for us to continue to punish him for it. Face the consequences like a man but know that we believe in your abilities to lead your country despite this incident.”
Q. What did you learn about leadership from him?
The most important leadership trait required is the ability to listen. The ability to listen with the intention to truly understand another person’s point of view and not with the intent to only respond.
Q. What other qualities have you learnt from Mandela that have helped to shape your own life?
Fairness, Tolerance; not only understanding but truly comprehending the challenges faced by another person. Also giving yourself enough time to think about a problem and not to be impulsive in trying to respond or resolve any issues.
Q. What has been his greatest gift to you personally?
The way in which he developed and changed my thinking.
Q. What other world leaders that you met impressed you and why?
Bill Clinton had true statesmanship. Mary Robinson [former president of Ireland] because of her unwillingness to compromise simply because she is a woman. Barack Obama due to his humility. Former president of Botswana and leading figure in the independence movement, Sir Quett Masire for his quiet statesmanship. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands impressed me with his un-officiousness and his young and fresh approach to world problems.
Q. In many ways you seem to have sacrificed a personal life to dedicate to Mandela? Was that a conscious decision?
No. If you are given the opportunity to work for someone like Nelson Mandela, you don’t ever sit down and think of pros and cons. It was a calling at the time and I didn’t think of any sacrifices. I always thought of the time he spent in prison and then thought to myself: how do I even begin to think that I am sacrificing anything when he had sacrificed so much for me to be living in freedom and democracy in South Africa. The two cannot be compared so I don’t think of it as a sacrifice even now.
Q. What do you think is his greatest legacy?
His ability to communicate with people because he respected them to such an extent that anyone could relate to him.
Q. Did Mandela really refer to the Queen as Elizabeth and say to her that she looked like she had lost weight?
Yes this is a story I tell during my speeches. He is probably one of the only people on Earth who called her by her first name and commented about her weight.
Hear Zelda La Grange, presidential aide of the late Nelson Mandela for 19 years, at AHRI’s International Women’s Day Breakfasts in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane from 6 to 9 March 2018. Register now.