Book review: Good Morning, Mr Mandela, by Zelda la Grange

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 2014, 8:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 12:01pm

Good Morning, Mr Mandela: A Memoir
by Zelda la Grange
3.5 stars

Victoria Burrows

A memoir, being a personal account, often evades the critical rigour that a reviewer might apply to, for example, a novel or historical non-fiction.

While a reader expects a memoir to be factually correct, there is more allowance for personal and emotional musings than for, even, an autobiography. As a memoir isn't fiction, the work can't be held to the same standard on character formation or plot development. That's why it is often the art form of choice of non-writers who feel they have a story to tell, that's interesting enough to compensate for the fact that they will not be producing great literature.

In the case of Zelda la Grange, the story is indeed captivating. As the most trusted aide to Nelson Mandela for almost two decades, she had the kind of access to the South African statesman and anti-apartheid fighter that few others could boast.

In Good Morning, Mr Mandela, La Grange offers insight into what being one of the world's most revered individuals was like. Constantly bombarded by adoring well-wishers, Mandela was unable to do simple things such as buy a pen or go on holiday to anywhere but the most secluded places.

While other celebrities might face the same lack of privacy, Mandela's humility and gentleness meant he was also relentlessly approached for help in all manner of ways, from brokering international peace deals to providing advice in the family disputes of strangers.

La Grange recalls how one man telephoned to request an audience with Mandela: his parrot, the caller said, did a fine imitation of the then president.

While it's fascinating to get a glimpse into the private world of Mandela, what is equally captivating is la Grange herself. A young, white Afrikaner woman brought up to believe blacks are to be feared and subjugated, she stumbles into the position of typist in the office of South Africa's first democratically elected government - one she has little faith or interest in. But she eventually becomes Mandela's personal secretary, the assistant he turns to at all hours for support.

Going from a naïve boeremeisie (Afrikaans for farm girl), she confronts her own prejudices, and increasingly centres her life around serving and protecting Mandela, assuming a persona that is part-daughter, part-wolf mother, all the while eschewing a normal life, boyfriends and any chance of having her own family.

"Your entire being changes being around someone like Madiba," she writes, using Mandela's clan name. Her dedication verges on obsession - something she would probably be the first to admit - but it's difficult to label it as pathological, considering the outpouring of grief around the world at his death in 2013.

"Madiba's entire being was based on respect. Respect for your friends, respect for the enemy, for those poorer than you … even those who harmed you or those who made mistakes … There was not one day that I felt that Madiba disrespected me because I was a lesser person than him … Not one day. Not one occasion," she writes.

Not that la Grange paints a rose-tinted portrait: she describes the leader as eccentric, stubborn, uncompromising and, at times, difficult. His illness and death, aged 95, and the increasing hostility la Grange faces from some factions of Mandela's extended family in later years, dominates the last part of the book.

Anyone who, like US president Bill Clinton, pop star Bono and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who provide quotes on the back of the book, felt touched by the life and death, of this impressive man should find it an interesting, easy read.