Book Review: Good Morning, Mr Mandela
Book Report: Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange
What would the possibility be of a young “boeremeisie” (Afrikaner girl) from a typical Afrikaans Boksburg family becoming a personal secretary to President Mandela sometime after he was released from prison in 1990 and then duly chosen to become the first President of the “New South Africa”? Then after he retired to stay on as his personal secretary until his death in 2013?
None! But fairy tales do happen.
This book is the story of her life, but also gives a unique insight into the life of Nelson Mandela from when he became President up to his death. It needs to be read and understood on two levels:
1. As the amazing later life of Mandela, one of the best known persons in modern world history, his skill as a leader and his amazing humanity as a person, that made him an icon in his own time.
2. As the account of a young woman who gets an amazing opportunity to serve in a capacity that she could not have dreamt would be possible. Overcoming her belief about white and blacks, about the South African political scene as she learnt it from her parents and her own observations in her society, “her eyes were opened” by Madiba, or Khulu as she called him. Travelling with him to countries all over the world, meeting world leaders and famous people, her life is interesting and challenging. Names like Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Gadhafi, Bush, Mugabe, Cameron, Ghandi, Oprah and Naomi Cambell, Charlene Theron, Bono, Kofi Annan, Morgan Freeman etc. are mentioned. Some became friends of Mandiba as they supported his initiatives to set up his children’s fund as tose from the music fraternity who supported his fundraising efforts. His contact with sportsmen and officials is documented, some we know about and others that we don’t. François Pienaar, Hansie Cronje and Danny Jordaan are just a few. He greets the Queen as “Elizabeth” and when questioned about that he answers, “She calls me Nelson”. At a later meeting he comments to her that she has lost weight!
La Grange gives us her candid and honest opinion of what she thought, observed and felt about countries and people.
She is tasked with taking care of Madiba in many different ways, and over the years, as a close relationship developed. She tried to balance the many demands on his time, especially after he “retired”, first as President and then from his role as mediator in disputes in Africa and elsewhere. He continued his work as founder of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other trusts.
Conflict came from every side. She lost some of her Afrikaner friends, was seen as “his minder” by many who thought that they had a right to his time, and she said “she doesn’t mind” that. Her personal life was challenged as her job was never an eight to five one. Conflict with the family was always going to be a problem but she seemed to be aware of that and described how she tried to avoid it. A good relationship with Gracia Marchel, who she called Mum, and her family developed as it did with some of the Mandela family. Others in the family resented her presence and showed it.
What Mandela appreciated was her organizational skills and strict insistence on detail. One of the many things that she learnt from him was to accept people without prejudice, even if you cannot agree with what they believe or had done in the past. He not only preached that but lived it out. He had the ability to trust people until they proved to be untrustworthy. At the same time he was seen to be a very intelligent man and a shrewd politician. Some of his statements that she shared are beautiful. He is reported to have said, “I moved in circles where common sense and practical experience were important, and where high academic qualifications were not necessarily decisive.” (Conversations with myself – Nelson Mandela)
Like all fairy tales the road was not always smooth and the death and funeral services of Madiba reads like a nightmare, as was reported in the press at the time. The fighting for his “wealth” brought out the worst in some of the family, and continues after the book was published with court cases about possessions, including his Qunu property, and corruption charges against those who stole money allocated for the funeral, continuing at present.
The book, apart from being a detailed and careful record of an important time in our own history as seen by someone who was blessed to be right in the front lines, is also an account of a white South African woman battling with her entrance into a wider world, here in South Africa and on the world stage. She writes with an openness and honesty that I found engaging. Her humour also comes through, and for an Afrikaans speaking South African she shows good literary skills.
From my point of view I found it a compelling read and will add it to my list of books that every South African and in fact everyone in the world should read. There are times when I had to wipe a tear from my eye as she recorded events that perhaps needed to be seen from a woman’s eye. Sometimes the details of another trip or another meeting became a bit tedious but that does not take away from the powerful message of the book.
The ensuing war that erupted on social media after the publication of the book is unfortunate and needs to be understood in light of the family feelings. Some must at times have felt frustrated because she had become more like a granddaughter and less like a secretary as time went by.
I believe Madela would have approved of the book and would have said “well done Zelda! You have learned to be courageous as I told you many years ago”
Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange: Penquin Books, 2014