JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant Zelda la Grange has released her much-anticipated memoir of the years she spent working for South Africa’s beloved former president — and detailing the nasty family infighting during the final few years of his life.
“Good Morning, Mr. Mandela” tells of La Grange’s 19 years at his side, and her transformation from a young Afrikaans typist who grew up during apartheid South Africa to Mandela’s trusted assistant during his presidency and the years that followed.
Along the way La Grange met world leaders and celebrities, becoming the gatekeeper to Mandela, as well as his caretaker. But ahead of his death on Dec. 5, La Grange was sidelined by some Mandela family members. She recounts their cruelty toward his third wife Graca Machel, whom he married in 1998, and whom La Grange describes as “the only person who really made him happy.”
Here are the nine best tidbits from La Grange’s book:
1) A private viewing of Lenin
Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)
On Mandela’s last official trip as South African president, in 1999, he traveled to Moscow and visited the mausoleum on Red Square where Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body is exhibited.
A visit to see Lenin, recounts La Grange, is an incredibly solemn occasion, and the South Africans were briefed by a Russian protocol officer on the rules — chief among them, no talking.
“What we had forgotten was that the president’s hearing was already not good,” La Grange writes. Mandela most likely didn’t hear the officer’s instructions.
“We were all quiet, almost admiring the body of the dead Communist leader,” La Grange writes. “It was kind of spooky. And then, without any warning, the president with his booming loud voice said: ‘So, how long has he been lying here?’”
No one responded, and so Mandela repeated his question. At which daughter Zenani, who was accompanying him, said: “Daddy, you are not allowed to talk.”
Mandela whispered back, still loud enough for everyone to hear: “Oh OK, I’m sorry.”
2) A royal visit with "Elizabeth"
Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela at Buckingham Palace in 2003. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP/Getty Images)
Mandela had a warm relationship with Queen Elizabeth. La Grange recounts a visit to London to see the Queen, whom Mandela always greeted as “Elizabeth.”
“I think he was one of the very few people who called her by her first name and she seemed to be amused by it. I was entertained by these interactions,” La Grange writes.
“When he was questioned one day by Mrs. Machel and told that it was not proper to call the Queen by her first name, he responded: ‘But she calls me Nelson.’”
“On one occasion when he saw her he said, ‘Oh Elizabeth, you’ve lost weight!’ Not something everybody gets to tell the Queen of England.”
3) Dinner with Gaddafi
Mandela and Gaddafi in Cape Town in 1999. (Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images)
Mandela was old friends with Muammar Gaddafi, who had been a staunch supporter of the African National Congress during the years of struggle against apartheid. According to La Grange, Mandela was “shocked” when Gaddafi was killed in 2011.
“It was always entertaining to see the Brother Leader,” writes La Grange, recounting a visit to Libya shortly after Mandela ended his single term as president. Gaddafi went out of his way to be hospitable to his South African guests.
“Earlier in the afternoon Madiba and I had a discussion about camel meat as we drove past camels and, when asked by the Brother Leader what we wanted for dinner, Madiba felt it was appropriate to ask for camel meat. ‘Of course,’ the Brother Leader responded.
“The camel meat tasted exactly like lamb. I was later told that they had to slaughter baby camels as the meat became tough the older the camel grew. I was not going to encourage the slaughter of baby animals so I never wanted to eat camel again.”
4) Brad Pitt who?
Brad Pitt, 2012. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
La Grange often had to explain to Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, who certain Hollywood stars and musicians were. This included U2’s Bono — Mandela would later remark that this “Bono chap” seems rather popular — and the actor Brad Pitt.
“I tried to explain to Madiba who Brad Pitt was but it was difficult. When they finally met the next day Madiba asked (as he usually did) whether Brad had a business card with him. Of course Brad didn’t. Madiba asked: “So what do you do?”
Pitt was “gracious in his response,” writes La Grange, “and said: ‘I try acting for living.’”
5) A speech to the Palestinian parliament
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with Mandela in Cairo, June 29, 1993. (Mohamed el-Dakhakhny/AFP/Getty Images)
In 2009, Mandela visited Israel and Palestine. He delivered a speech to the Palestinian parliament — but a virus of some sort had crept into the computer file containing the final draft, and no one had noticed.
“The last sentence of the speech ended with a mathematical formula. Madiba also didn’t read the final edits and as a result he read out the maths at the end of the speech,” La Grange explains.
“It was in letters and although I cannot remember the exact words, it was something like: ‘For every two equals four minus seven times eight. I thank you.’”
“We were all puzzled but after his speech the entire Palestinian parliament rose to their feet in resounding applause. The speech was translated simultaneously and either the translator didn’t translate the maths formula or translated it into something profound.”
6) "Ms. Frantic"
Graca Machel on June 26, 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Michelly Rall/Getty Images)
In June 2013, when Mandela was taken to the hospital in Pretoria for what would be the last time, the unmarked military ambulance transporting him from his home in Johannesburg broke down along a highway at 3 a.m. A gravely ill Mandela was stranded at roadside for some 40 minutes. Machel (who La Grange calls “Mum”) was terribly upset — and was mocked by Mandela’s eldest daughter from his first marriage, Makaziwe.
“Newspapers described Mrs. Machel as being ‘frantic’ during these events,” La Grange says. “The next day Makaziwe entered the hospital calling Mrs. Machel ‘Ms Frantic.’ Mum was hurt and emotionally brutalized[.]”
7) Banned from visiting
Mandela and La Grange. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
La Grange writes that she herself was prevented from visiting Mandela by his daughter Makaziwe. This was despite the fact that certain family members would bring strangers into Mandela’s home in Houghton, Johannesburg to see him, she writes.
During his long stay at a Pretoria hospital, La Grange was able to visit Mandela only with help from Machel and her daughter Josina, who hid La Grange in the back seat of their car and snuck her into the hospital.
“I was desperate to go to the hospital but realized that I had to stay away as long as Makaziwe was there. I wanted to spare Madiba an altercation,” she writes.
8) Graca sidelined
Graca Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela, cries during an African National Congress send off ceremony for her husband on Dec. 14, 2013 in Pretoria. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
La Grange recounts the intense difficulty to get accreditation for Mandela’s friends to attend memorial and funeral services. Even his widow Machel had to be accredited.
“In addition to the Madiba ‘friends list,’ as we called it, the Machel family was suddenly told that they would only be allowed five accreditations and Mrs. Machel would count as the first,” La Grange writes. “So she plus four other Machels would be allowed accreditation at her own husband’s funeral.”
9) Life support?
Pretoria, Dec. 14, 2013. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
La Grange writes that Mandela, during his final months, wasn’t just a vegetable kept alive by machines.
“At times I wondered, like many South Africans, whether he was being kept alive artificially. But Mrs. Machel and Josina told me there was still a spark there, that he occasionally held someone’s hand or managed to open his eyes,” she writes.
“But by November even that didn’t happen. He was slipping away, despite an overwhelming effort by the doctors to keep him alive.”