Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, fondly referred to as Madiba, became a legend in his lifetime. In a worldwide survey done some years ago in which photos of famous people in the world had to be named, Nelson’s photo was, by far, the most recognised, more so than photos of any other world leader or icon. He was considered to be one of the world’s greatest leaders despite having been incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island on charges of treason before being freed. His prison number, 46664, is known throughout the world and serves as a symbol and a reminder of a great man who unified South Africa. But who exactly was he?
Madiba through Zelda’s eyes
Zelda la Grange was Nelson Mandela’s assistant and honorary “white granddaughter” for 16 years, during his presidency and when he retired. She organised his working week and travelled extensively with him on foreign tours and only left him when he retired from public life.Zelda’s name became Zeldina after a state visit to Russia after Mandela learned that President Boris Yeltsin’s wife’s name was Yeltsina. After that 1999 visit, the name Zeldina stuck.
Mandela knew what he wanted. He could be tough, on himself too, and was very straightforward. “You knew what was expected of you and, as long as you were doing that, it was very easy to work for him,” she said.
While he was president he would sometimes phone Zelda at 2am and think nothing of it. Mandela worked exceptionally hard and expected the same from those around him.
Afrikaans became their secret weapon overseas when he didn’t want people to know what he was saying. He had learnt to speak Afrikaans on Robben Island.
His favourite people included the then Presidents Bill Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac, Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He was also failingly polite to people like Margaret Thatcher, even though she had referred to the ANC as a terrorist organisation.
He saw the humour in a number if situations, telling Gordon Brown “we’re very happy to see prime minister Brown and we’re here to remind [the British] that although they colonised us, we have now taken over.” That was his sense of humour. He also enjoyed some light-hearted moments with Queen Elizabeth.
Zelda had this to say about Mandela’s penchant for celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls. “I think he was amused and entertained by their fame; he was almost curious in a way, he wanted to see for himself why people were famous. It intrigued him. Naomi was like a granddaughter to him. The fact she offered her celebrity status to support his charitable work was very important and special to him.”