Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela’s former trusted bodyguard has described his widow Graca Machel as “no saint” in reaction to details of a book published by the late statesman’s personal assistant Zelda la Grange this week.
Shaun van Heerden, the man La Grange described as “a trusted bodyguard and a friend for more than ten years” in her book – Good Morning, Mr Mandela – admitted that the family had its faults but so did Machel.
“We can’t get into a situation where we elevate Mrs Machel to a status of a saint,” Van Heerden told the Saturday Star.” She (Machel) was good to Mandela but I think she will be the first one to admit that she wasn’t perfect. Why should we as people that were close to him (Mandela) get to that level where we basically become part of the problem in this family feud.”
In extracts published last weekend from her book, La Grange illustrated sensational details of the friction Machel had to endure as a member of the Mandela family and how family politics took a heavy toll on her.
“I don’t know of any person alive who has been treated with the amount of disrespect that people have shown towards Mrs Machel,” La Grange wrote. “Politics within his (Mandela’s) family about his funeral took place for years before his death.”
La Grange’s book revealed behind-the-scenes family drama and power struggles that marred the period before and after his death.
In the book Makaziwe Mandela, Madiba’s eldest daughter from his first marriage, is cited to have been behind Machel’s sidelining on many occasions.
Van Heerden agreed that Machel “wasn’t much liked on that side of the family when it came to Makaziwe” but he added that the tension in the family “was for me normal in such a big family structure”.
He said while he respected La Grange’s right to her opinion and would defend her right to write a book, he did not necessarily agree with the route she took.
“There are certain things that we can share with the world with great pleasure but we must also be careful not to get caught in the middle of what everybody is mentioning as (Mandela) family feuds or fuel that fire,” he said. “Yes I started reading the book and it is not only about that because there are good points, there are brilliant points in the book and it’s definitely a good read but I think she (Zelda) should have been more sensitive to the family side of things.”
Van Heerden said he would not make public some of the things he was privileged to witness when he worked for Mandela “out of respect for the world icon”. He said while Zelda “did wonders in her line of work we mustn’t be seen as picking sides of one over another within the Mandela family structure”.
Asked what he thought about a view that the book was more about Zelda’s experiences and not about Mandela, Van Heerden said: “You can’t divorce the two.”
He spoke about his disappointment of reading in La Grange’s book about one incident of Mandela’s fall while in Sun City which “we agreed to keep it under wraps for a reason” at that stage of his life. “For it to come out now is wrong irrespective of what her reasons are,” he lamented. “I am not comfortable with that.”
But Van Heerden, who last year spoke out about his treatment by the Mandela’s medical team, backed up La Grange’s comments that the team was “constant source of friction”, and that at one stage a possibility of replacing them was raised.
“The reason why Mrs Machel wanted the minister to change the medical team was specific – they blurred their mandate,” he said. “They got involved in things that weren’t meant for them – family gossip to the extent that they ended up reporting to Maki (Makaziwe) about Mrs Machel, they became informants.”
In 2012 during the ANC centenary celebrations when a torch was presented to Madiba in Qunu, Van Heerden said Machel was sidelined.
“She was physically pushed out of the way. She couldn’t even stand behind her own husband. If you scrutinise the footage when the torch was brought in you will see,” he added. “I had no allegiance to anybody in those family factions.
“My loyalty was with my work around Madiba. I treated the family with respect but I was also strong enough to look them in the eye and say what things I didn’t agree with.”