Assistant's memoir exposes Mandela family power struggle

Zelda la Grange’s book reveals how family controlled matters at end of Mandela’s life

South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela leaves his office in Johannesburg with assistant Zelda la Grange.  Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela leaves his office in Johannesburg with assistant Zelda la Grange. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images


A memoir by Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant has lifted the lid on the internal family power struggles that went on in the last few years of his life, and of the chaos at his funeral last December.

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange reportedly reveals how the statesman’s wife Graca Machel needed accreditation to attend his funeral and how his inability to express his wishes at the end of his life was used by family members to “step in and start controlling matters to their advantage”.

The book, which will be released this week, also details the chaotic scenes that unfolded at his state funeral. At one point it says Bono of U2, along with actress Charlize Theron, were initially refused entry into the VIP suite at Mandela’s memorial service at Soweto’s FNB Stadium.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that after the memorial service Bono was again left out of the loop. And it took an intervention by former South African president FW de Klerk to get him and Naomi Campbell accreditation for Mandela’s lying-in-state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

La Grange worked as a personal assistant to South Africa’s first democratically elected president for 19 years and spent more time with him than most in the years that followed him taking up office as president in 1994.

The Afrikaner started working for him as typist in the presidency when she was 23 and become his trusted assistant, spokeswoman and close friend.

The revelations in the book are bound to upset some members of the Mandela clan, but La Grange told the Sunday Times she can stand over every claim.

“I expect backlash from a lot of people. You can never write something or expose yourself like this and expect no one to be upset about it . . . there’s not one line that can be contested in the book,” she told the newspaper.

Central to the Mandela family power struggle was Mr Mandela’s oldest daughter, Makaziwe, who took it upon herself to bar some of his old friends from visiting her dying father, once he was unable to communicate properly.

La Grange says Mandela’s wife Graca Machel was “the only person who really made him happy”, but that she had to endure much hostility as a member of the Mandela family, primarily from Makaziwe’s faction in the clan.

Madiba’s decisions

La Grange also fell foul of Makaziwe, she says. After Mr Mandela was hospitalised in March 2013 Makaziwe told her that because she was no longer working for her father, she was not welcome to visit him despite their close relationship.

With Mandela too ill to address the matter, La Grange says Machel, who she refers to as “mum”, stepped in on her behalf.

La Grange writes in one chapter: “Mum had to defend me once again, arguing that she was willing to defend Madiba’s decisions whether they liked it or not, and that she was going to see that his wishes were fulfilled until the day he passed on.

“She told them that my presence from time to time provided him with emotional stability.”

La Grange went on to say that a huge amount of disrespect was shown to Mrs Machel, and that politics within Mr Mandela’s family about his funeral took place for years before his death.

“Mrs Machel and some of the children had refused to be party to arrangements about Madiba’s [Mandela’s clan name] funeral.

“He was still in fairly good health and it was unthinkable to be planning someone’s funeral while the person was still happily alive, still being cared for by his wife,” she added.