Mandela’s Assistant Visits Little Rock

Former assistant to Nelson Mandela , Zelda La Grange, speaking at the Clinton Center. Photo: Christine Kemper/Forum

The Clinton Presidential Library hosted speaker, Zelda la Grange, the Executive Personal Assistant to former South African President Nelson Mandela, on Monday, Feb. 5.

A crowd of over 100 people attended the event, in which la Grange told the story of her life with Mandela, working with him for 19 years. Her speech was accompanied by a digital presentation full of powerful photographs of life in South Africa, both during apartheid and after.

Mandela became the first black president of South Africa after he helped to end apartheid in 1993 and had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, together with former South African President, F.W. de Klerk. After he retired from politics in 1999, la Grange continued to work for Mandela until his death in 2013.

In her speech, la Grange admitted candidly that before she began working for Mandela in 1994, she was a racist.

“But my family were supporters of apartheid,” la Grange said, “and when you grow up in privilege like I did, simply because of the color of my skin, you didn’t ask questions about what was happening outside the borders of your community.”

After Mandela passed away in 2013, la Grange published a book of her memoirs in 2014 titled, “Good Morning, Mr. Mandela.” She told the audience that, in her book, she also admits to being a “proper racist.”

La Grange’s speech described the treatment of and conditions in South Africa for blacks across the country throughout the years of apartheid. The photos she showed depicted deplorable living conditions while she told stories of no electricity or clean water and having to use bathrooms outdoors with no privacy or dignity.

She also told stories of her time with Mandela; recounting the first time she met him, by accident in his office. She stated that there were only five people working in his presidential office at the time and she was the “most junior person” on his staff, and never expected to run into him.

“The first thing you noticed when you met him was the sincerity in his eyes, the kindness of his face, that infectious smile of his,” la Grange said.

La Grange went on to speak of Mandela’s policies and stances. She spoke of the great friendship between former President Bill Clinton and Mandela.

“When they met in 1997, they discovered what the word bromance would mean,” la Grange said.

After her speech, la Grange took several questions from the audience and announced she would be staying afterward to sign copies of her book for those who would like to purchase a copy.

The Clinton Library hosted this event in conjunction with their two current exhibits about South Africa; Art of Africa: One Continent, Limitless Vision and Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu.

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