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Protecting Madiba is Zelda's passion in life


By Aurelia Dyantyi

She has been described as a lioness and a tiger by the media and top businessmen, but Nelson Mandela's "right hand" says she is only a pussycat.

She says her reputation as a ruthless protector of the world's most loved octogenarian is just part of the job, and not her real personality.

The passion for her job becomes evident when you get closer to Zelda la Grange, Madiba's trusted personal assistant and spokesperson, who is prepared to be nasty to protect the man she regards as a grandfather.

Only a day after Madiba announced his retirement from public life, La Grange is having a hectic day and casually complains about people who still hope to worm their way to meeting the former statesman.

"It has been crazy this morning, I didn't expect this day would be this wild.

"People are still calling, hoping to get an interview with Madiba about his retirement, even though we made it perfectly clear yesterday that he is retiring. One just has to put one's foot down."

Being a gatekeeper to an international icon like Madiba is not a popular job, and she confesses to despising saying "no" and having to be rude to people.

"I respect that people love Madiba, and I love him too. But what people do not understand is that he also has to rest, and I'm usually the person who has to put the foot down and say it is enough."

La Grange is clearly excited that Madiba is retiring because it will afford her the chance to organise her own life and spend more time with her parents, brother and close friends.

"I do find it very frustrating not being in control of my own life. I would plan social events and suddenly drop everything at the 11th hour because I have to jump on a plane unexpectedly. But now there will be much less of that because we will not be taking many invitations."

La Grange joined the President's Office as a 24-year-old typist in 1994, never dreaming that one day she would wield so much power. Her meteoric rise came as a surprise, even to her, but she credits it to her loyalty and the great respect she has for Mandela.

"I respect him a great deal and try not to be too familiar with him, even though I'm accepted as part of the family.

"I give him his space and do not suffocate him."

While she is the envy of many for having a perfect job, there has been a lot of animosity directed at her from all spheres, including her own conservative Afrikaans family. Even though she has developed a thick skin over the years, she still gets hurt by negative remarks.

Back in 1994, some racist elements in her Pretoria community rebuked her for working for a black man, and her family needed convincing on her choice of employment.

Up to this day, many people, black and white, still want to know why a powerful man such as Madiba would put his life in the hands of a 34-year-old Afrikaans woman.

"The animosity is non-stop. I've been referred to as 'that white girl' and people do not understand what Madiba is doing 'running after a white girl'.

"It just never stops. From the beginning, backward people in my community questioned why I took this job. They would say to me: 'Why would you serve tea to a black man, it's humiliating'.

"But since Madiba believes so much in reconciliation, I've also learned a lot from him. However, I'm convinced that even if he had employed an African person as his PA (personal assistant), there would still be animosity.

"It comes with the job."

When talking about herself, she blushes and gets a bit uncomfortable. She describes herself as a perfectionist, loyal, introverted, and a nice person who loves spending time in nature and with animals.

La Grange becomes very bubbly when she describes her new-found passion, motorcycle racing, and she can't wait to get her new BMW 1150.

For this hardworking PA, her boss's retirement doesn't mean she will be idle. She will continue working as Madiba's gatekeeper and travel with him, and she also hopes to help him write the second instalment of his book.

"If Madiba requires my assistance, I will always be there for him," she says with pride.


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