Uveka Rangappa in conversation with Zelda La Grange
Imagine being the right hand, eyes and ears of one of the most revered men on the planet? Zelda La Grange spent nearly 20 years being all of that and more to Nelson Mandela.
What was that like for a young Afrikaans girl? And what about “Life After Madiba” and fear of the unknown? Zelda La Grange tells journalist and news anchor, Uveka Rangappa what it means to be fearless in times of change, uncertainty and moving on…
You were a young Afrikaans girl, working for one of the greatest men in history, at a time of great change in SA. How scared were you?
I was a naive Afrikaans girl who knew very little about what really happened in SA. I hoped I would never have to greet the President. We were brought up fearing him. I even locked my office door the first few days when I heard him arrive. But my world changed irrevocably when I met him.
Was young Zelda born fearless or did she learn to become fearless?
Both. I was a shy child but my brother challenged me and made me an adventurous and naughty teen. I also took acting lessons, determined to become an actress. But all that confidence meant nothing the day I walked into my new world in 1994. One of the first lessons President Mandela taught me was to be courageous. He once got so angry with me for agreeing to run an errand which he considered humiliating. He called me to his house and told me that if I couldn’t stand up for myself, I wouldn’t last long in that environment. I had to grow up very fast.
Your identity was and still is in many ways linked to Madiba’s.
When he passed, did you feel just a little afraid/lost?
I realise things will happen exactly as and when they must. I think I really only started feeling the impact of the loss last year during hard lockdown. No work, no-where to go – just myself. It was traumatic and I came to understand what I had been through for 20 years but also what I’d lost.
Many women are afraid of change. They stay in unhappy/abusive relationships or jobs they hate. What would you say to them?
People simply do not know how scared, broken, disappointed I have been in my life but I pushed through. Once you liberate yourself from everything that holds you back, you feel rejuvenated. Things always get worse before they get better. But our intuition is our strongest weapon as women. Invest in people who will support you once you take the leap and you will fly.
Many women are also afraid of their own power – they don’t try for fear of failure or not being good enough. What do you say to them?
Many people openly complained and were jealous of my closeness to Madiba. Mrs Machel sat me down one day and asked me why I found it necessary to defend Madiba's decisions. She told me he had chosen ME and despite many people confronting him about it, they could never change his mind. I accepted that and once I realised I wouldn’t be able to please everyone all of the time, intense gratitude replaced my feelings of doubt and inadequacy. Being afraid is very different to allowing fear to control you. What you should be afraid of is NOT taking the first step to bring about change. It’s okay to be afraid of failure but that fear should never control you. You should control it!
(Zelda La Grange is a renowned motivational speaker and author. She currently co-hosts the Afrikaans women’s talk show "Tussen Ons" on Kyknet &Kie and is setting up an online gift shop. She lives in the Overstrand .)