By Edward Malnick

Send your birthday wishes for Madiba

Anyone who has secured an appointment with Nelson Mandela since the end of his presidential term in 1999 would probably have had a written or telephone exchange with Zelda la Grange.

It is also likely that the former president's long-serving assistant would have sat in on such a meeting, guarding her boss's time closely.

To her this was a necessary policing of the huge number of requests for Mandela to agree to a meeting, photograph or endorsement of a campaign or event.

British journalist John Carlin remembers wondering wether La Grange's frosty manner was her true character.

"There had seemed to be a sweetness and a charm beneath the hard-nosed hyper-protectiveness, but it had required a certain generosity on my part to detect it."

Now Mandela's appointments are truly much fewer, La Grange has begun to divert more of her energies to fundraising for his charities.

However, she explained that Mandela was still her "main priority", because she honoured the request he made 10 years ago that she continue working for him. For Mandela and his secretary, his initial "retirement" was the next phase of his working life, after his presidency.

"When he asked me in 1999 to 'retire' with him, I took it to heart, although I am apparently very far from retirement myself."

La Grange's use of the word "retirement" seems to play up to the ambiguous meaning it has held in describing Mandela's working state in recent years.

There is a sad aspect to her devotion to Mandela, which Carlin revealed when he interviewed La Grange last year for the Observer.

Both regard their relationship as that between a grandfather and granddaughter and this has required the younger of the two to devote a great part of her life to the elder's service.

"I am blessed. But there have been a lot of personal sacrifices along the way. Such as not having a social life for very long, and I'm 37 now."

"I've travelled all over, met so many people and I know I am extraordinarily privileged, but my friends have found contentment with the ordinary things in life and I have not; they have children, I don't. It would be kind of nice to drive your kids to school every morning."

"If I had my whole life all over again, I wish that the same would happen, but you do wonder whether you'd have children to tell all your stories to. You do. It's human."

La Grange manages the "Founder's Office" at the Mandela Foundation and remains his "spokesperson and executive assistant". She organises Mandela's meetings and trips but she describes widespread references to her role as "gatekeeper" as a "myth".

"No one takes unilateral decisions around Mr Mandela," she said last week. "We have a well-cemented process at the foundation where all requests serve once a week before an advisory committee, of which I am part and that consists of some of the most senior staff of the foundation. Requests are discussed there in detail and very few accepted as a result of Mr Mandela's age and retired status."

As a result of Mandela's downsized schedule, La Grange has spent more time on the 46664 HIV/Aids awareness campaign - so-called after his prison number.

She flew to New York last week to make the final arrangements for a concert to be held on Saturday in celebration of Mandela's 91st birthday.

The event also signals the launch of what La Grange terms a "social movement" in which individuals are asked to spend 67 minutes annually on July 18 working for their communities.

"We hope to encourage people to improve the circumstances around them by doing good on Mandela Day within their own communities. It doesn't have to cost money: a simple good deed or spending time with people in need to relieve their sorrow is what we encourage."

The bulky contact book that Mandela's secretary developed is now her main resource.

"Personally, I focus on assisting 46664 as a result of relationships I have established over the years and utilising those now to support the ongoing work of Mr Mandela's charities. All the Mandela charities are beneficiaries of funds raised by 46664 and I thus assist them all."

La Grange's words imply that although her workload is still great, she is more its master. She hints that this has allowed her private sphere to grow.

"Yes, what is very different now is that life is much more predictable, although not completely.

"I also have a personal life for which I am grateful and over which I am very protective. Pressure is different, but not necessarily less."