Madiba understood the importance of a collective, but also saw each person as an individual, whose ideas needed to be respected, said his long-serving former assistant Zelda la Grange at a business breakfast at the Maslow Hotel in Pretoria this week.
La Grange spoke as the world gears up for Mandela Day next Wednesday, a day on which South Africans are called upon to do good for the community. She spoke with great warmth of Nelson Mandela, the newly elected president who she met at the age of 23, a white, sheltered Afrikaner girl who had been fed “propaganda” and had no real idea of what was happening in South Africa at the time.
“I grew up in the north of Pretoria, and did not know or even care what happened beyond my community,” she said.
Apartheid was wrecking the country but her family did not discuss politics and knew only what the media showed at the time.
She vividly remembered February 11, 1990, the day on which Mandela was released. “I had never heard of him, and was swimming in the pool when my father came out and warned that we were in trouble, as ‘the terrorist’ had been released.”
This same father was to come to loave and respect Madiba, plant trees at his Qunu home and was distraught when his death was announced in December 2013.
La Grange described how she landed the job which would take her to the highest office in the country, and from her initial fear, allow her to become close to Mandela for 19 years, even after he retired from public life. “The first thing I noticed was the kindness in his eyes, the sincerity in his face, but when he spoke I froze,” she recalled - for Madiba spoke to her in her home tongue, Afrikaans.
In her later career as a motivational speaker she was often asked “what would Mandela do?”
Her answer was to tell a story about something Mandela did or said and leave her audience to draw their own conclusion.
For this talk, she picked stories about discipline and punctuality, being at the core of Mandela's values, and went on to tell an amusing story about a meeting at which former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was very late.
She spoke of Mandela's ability to respect everyone and how he “kissed babies” and visited people in their homes. “Integrity, respect and ethics, whether you were wealthy or a cleaner, you were all the same to him.”
She said Mandela took time to listen, to think, to consider and contemplate - and there was a lesson in that for a generation which required instant gratification.
If people applied Mandela principles in their lives, not only would the world become a better place, but it would also bring the inner peace which personified Madiba.