For almost two decades, Zelda La Grange found herself in close proximity to one of the world’s greatest statesmen, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. As his personal assistant it was La Grange who spent most of her time with the Struggle icon regarded as the father of South Africa’s democracy. Here she sets out the effect Nelson Mandela has had on her life and what we need to do to preserve his legacy.
Being on the speaking circuit means that I interact, almost intimately, with thousands of people annually.
As an introvert I enjoy replenishing energy by being alone. For a long time I have struggled with the fact that while I love inspiring people and talking about my experiences, the interaction with so many people can be draining and exhausting. I often feel claustrophobic in public spaces and even more so having to make small talk with strangers.
Because of my association with Madiba for 19 years, people tend – unfairly or not and irrespective of my preference – to view me as an extension of him. There appears to be an almost inherent need to tell me stories about Madiba, this desire to share their one “Madiba moment”.
I was recently stopped by someone while walking my dogs. She is an Instagram follower, I later learnt. Her opening gambit was different, however. She didn’t ask for the usual affirmation that it was me but rather asked: “Is that Che and Eva”, my two three-month-old puppies.
I was so impressed by the fact that the woman had seen beyond what I represent or my Madiba connection that I immediately didn’t mind making conversation. Not all of those of us in the public eye enjoy attention or being recognised.
My journey over the past four years since the release of my memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela has been nothing short of the most exhilarating roller coaster ride. I was humbled and grateful for the overnight world-wide success of possibly one of the most unliterary works. I am told though that the success of my book was precisely because of its simplicity and the fact that I spoke from the heart.
But after a year, I simply couldn’t listen to any more Madiba stories, let alone repeat my own story. I had to decide whether I could continue.
I then had a serious conversation with one of my close friends who advised that I still had a responsibility to Madiba even though he had passed.
“If they don’t tell you their stories of Madiba, who will they tell them to and who would listen,” she said.
It forced me to do some serious introspection. For us all, me included, it’s always about us. Me me me. How I experience something. How I interpret it all. And she was right.
If I don’t listen, who will?
Coincidentally, shortly after having this conversation with my friend, the first public onslaught on Madiba’s legacy was launched. I was deeply disturbed. I reached out to Madiba’s allies, urging them to defend him. And in one such conversation, Graca Machel reminded me that Madiba’s legacy was much stronger than the onslaught.
I instantly realised that his absence in my life had made me doubt something I was so sure of before. Even the memory of one of the people who knew him best was fading, and that was the only reason that had inspired me to want to respond to the cheap politicking and attacks on Nelson Mandela.
My point is that memories fade. That, in turn, made me think again about history.
Regardless of your convictions or religious beliefs, most spiritual followings base their foundations on a book that is known in my Christian religion as The Bible. The Bible in any shape or form is based on the oldest scriptures in history, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some 2000 years ago, people experienced a number of events. Their first-hand experiences and retelling thereof, shaped by individual human interpretation, created what most religions use today as a yardstick for morality.
Today, the lessons of morality run parallel, irrespective of the religious concept or doctrine of belief. Two thousand years later, people still refer to the scriptures to guide behaviour or provide solace.
Thinking about this made me realise that the truth matters now more than ever. Even though the Bible, and language in general, has changed so much over 2000 years, the core of the message remains the same.
At this point it needs to be noted that I do not wish to draw parallels between the Bible and Nelson Mandela, but rather emphasise the importance of authentic history in both instances.
In listening to people sharing their Madiba stories with me, I have realised three things:
There is no way that I can recall every person or every incident of the people Madiba had met over the years.
Recently, I found myself at Constitution Hill for an annual YPO overseas visitors’ group. I was expected to share my experiences with Madiba. At the end of my speech I usually allow for a question and answer session.
One of the South African organisers, being the last to ask a question, started out with her own Madiba experience. She told us about her daughter meeting Madiba. The child was young and became shy and tried to hide behind her mother’s legs when she saw Madiba.
Madiba noticed this and approached her.
He apparently told her “one day I will be as important as you are, and then I will also refuse to greet you”, much to the audience’s delight.
These words she repeated that day were so true to the character of the man I had come to know that I immediately knew that this story was true.
We cannot expect young people to know Nelson Mandela, what he represented and his character the way those how knew him remember him.
I recently also engaged with someone on Twitter who said he had read Long Walk to Freedom, Anthony Sampson’s authorised biography of Nelson Mandela, and my book and that he was “done” reading about Madiba now.
I reminded him that Madiba read five newspapers every day. At first it appeared to be a waste of time to me and when asked about it, Madiba said that every story that is repeated in all these newspapers was written by an individual with a different interpretation of the matter. After reading the same story in five papers he said he felt he had a more balanced view on the matter and could take informed decisions for himself.
The same applies to history. Having been brought up in apartheid South Africa we, particularly white South Africans, were indoctrinated as the regime controlled every level of society including our history books. And we know history is told by the victor.
It is important for us to read and study all angles of history, but also that of Nelson Mandela in particular to have a real understanding of the man.
Allowing some to get away with cheap political shots and insults or taking these at face value does Nelson Mandela and his generation a disservice.
Growing up, I believed everything I was taught and I can say with authority that it was pure stupidity to believe it all without ever questioning the source or the agenda of those invested in the lie.
It is important for us, and especially the generation reading Daily Maverick, to talk about experience at they relate to Nelson Mandela. We need to interrogate the legacy affirming too that the man was not a saint but someone who consistently and deliberately tried harder than most of us are willing to do.
I also recently visited some of the places of relevance to Nelson Mandela’s early life and history.
Upon my return I realised we, as a South African nation, are clearly in trouble if we do not attach importance to the places that belong to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
We came across some dilapidated buildings that are meant to be of great historical importance to the country. We neglect this history because it is not a pressing matter, but as the years pass, the buildings will not restore themselves and every day a piece of history is thus lost to us.
Business should engage with government and establish partnerships to help rebuild or preserve the places of importance to Madiba’s life. The legacy belongs to all South Africans and not only to government.
The same outcry should follow if action is not taken fast enough as was the case with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s house in Brandfort.
In 100 years from now, few of us will be around to retell the stories in an authentic way.
Interpretation will water down the legacy of someone whose story was so crystal-clear to my generation if we do not protect, record and disseminate the legacy.
We South Africans should take pride in the fact that we lived in the same time as Nelson Mandela. We should be proud that he was one of us. And in doing so we should do what we can to preserve what we have and know now about him.
We should shout louder than the populists and drown out the untruths spread about him. Every person who had an experience with Nelson Mandela should tell that story, it should be recorded and the values, morals and principles he stood for should be living proof in our everyday lives.
That way, we will ensure that 100 years from now, truths about Nelson Mandela will be repeated as if they happened yesterday.
While we celebrate his centenary, let’s think about the next 100 years and do our part in ensuring that the legacy stays alive. We should allow each other the time and space to learn, to bring about an appreciation for our history and the value thereof to each South African. DM
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