Redeeming the Heirs of Apartheid?

Est. read time: 6 min
Credits: Print screen from The Guardian's website (

Credits: Print screen from The Guardian’s website (

She has been dubbed Mandela’s rock’.

So began a report by David Smith in The Observer on 15 December 2013 of an interview he did with Zelda la Grange, Mandela’s ‘closest aide’.

Staying with the prevailing theme of the world wide coverage of the death of Mandela, i.e., as the all forgiving, revenge and bitterness eschewing, conciliating father of the nation, the report focused on the rise of la Grange, a young Afrikaner, from the presidential typing pool to becoming Mandela’s ‘right-hand woman and, in effect, his white granddaughter’.

Smith writes:

With apartheid barely in its grave, it was a classic Mandela gesture to appoint a white person to his inner circle. La Grange had grown up north of the capital, Pretoria, “where (as la Grange told the Observer) people were exceptionally conservative, and totally oblivious to what was really happening politically in South Africa. We lived apartheid, we really did”.  When she started working for Mandela, her parents were suspicious “because the Afrikaner was brought up to believe that he was a terrorist, but we know now that today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s hero.  We were fearful of him but obviously that changed completely”.  (my emphasis)

La Grange was not yet 6 years old when the Soweto massacre occurred. In an area where people ‘lived apartheid’, one would not imagine that, whether at 6 or 16, la Grange would have been assisted by her school, let alone her family, in understanding the facts and the implication of the barbaric events in Soweto for the country whose future she would share. She was 19 when Mandela was released from prison.

We as African people have the experience in whatever jobs we get, especially when we are ‘the first’, as I became when I was appointed Director of Education in the London Borough of Hackney in 1989, of having to prove ourselves and excel above everyone else before we could be considered capable of doing the job, or are accepted by whites as being capable of doing the job.

In this instance, it was the black boss, despite being a global icon and the first President of the Republic of South Africa, who was considered not quite acceptable or worthy of the typing pool services of an Afrikaner young woman on account of suspicion that he might still be a terrorist.

"Memorial service of the late former President Nelson Mandela" by GCIS/GovernmentZA (Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Memorial service of the late former President Nelson Mandela” by GCIS/GovernmentZA (Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Pretoria Afrikaaner community to which la Grange belonged was not alone in continuing to harbour suspicions that Mandela might still have terrorist proclivities. George W Bush, one of the former US Presidents at the Memorial Service in Johannesburg on 10 December, kept Mandela on the Terrorist Watch List even after Mandela was elected President and was sowing peace and reconciliation at the core of the pillars of apartheid.

What is bizarre about this as far as I am concerned is that given the fact that, under apartheid, opportunities were denied to black people to do anything but work in mines and tend to the children, household chores, gardens and yards of whites, when Mandela had the power to open up employment opportunities for those talented African people to occupy jobs that were commensurate with their capabilities, the choices those around him made did not appear to be based on positive action to correct historical wrongs and denial of opportunity to Africans, but instead gave opportunity to those who already had it within their grasp at will on account of their skin colour, education, upbringing and access to the opportunity which apartheid had denied Africans.

In societies where racist ideology perpetuates a belief in white supremacy and white entitlement to opportunity as a right, it is a common experience of black people to have whites come and occupy senior positions, using the social and cultural capital and the automatic validation that their whiteness gives them, while the black people stay back or are kept back.

So, Zelda la Grange goes from being in the Presidential typing pool which she joined in 1994 to being Mandela’s ‘rock’ after he stepped down from the Presidency in 1999, ”arranging foreign travel, calling press conferences, negotiating with foreign governments …being his gatekeeper and accompanying him on every trip…, joining him on foreign tours, shouldering his cares.  It gave her unrivalled access to world leaders from Bill Clinton to Muammar Gaddafi…”.

A google profile of la Grange notes that ‘From joining the President’s office as Senior Ministerial Typist in 1994 Zelda became head of logistics for President Nelson Mandela. Working closely with various government departments she coordinated his itinerary, travel arrangements, security and transport…’

A clear case of ‘To them that have shall more be given and to them that have not, even that which they think they now have shall be taken away’.

Let me be clear.

I am not arguing for one moment that Zelda la Grange should have been made to bear alone the ‘sins of her fathers’, or that righting historical wrongs must entail that no white person in that ‘rainbow nation’ should be employed at whatever level within the administration until every qualified African person has been found a job.

My point is that with so many structures of apartheid remaining in place under Mandela’s presidency, e.g., security,  police, army and all the trappings of economic apartheid, to have a head of logistics, not yet 30, working with other government departments to coordinate Mandela’s itinerary and other arrangements must have felt by Africans in those departments like business as usual.

What is more, it sent out a powerful message to the world and especially to all those in the global anti-apartheid movement who longed to see evidence of a break with the past. The message it sent it to the world was one that helped construct the image of Mandela as that all forgiving, revenge and bitterness eschewing, conciliating father of all the nation, not just Africans and certainly not only those who had actively struggled to dismantle apartheid.

Hence a ‘classic Mandela gesture’, as The Observer put it.

But, forgiveness does not displace the need for justice and as such the need for those who are being forgiven to show evidence of accepting that the acts for which they are being forgiven have caused hurt, harm and injury to other and to their life chances, if not caused them their lives.

Therefore, forgiveness without repentance and restitution, reparation and remediation simply becomes a form of self indulgence on the part of those doing the forgiving.

For one thing, it provides no guarantee that those being forgiven would not want to adjust their ways once they could effectively retain power and hegemony and not give up anything that is fundamental to their status and the standards they have enjoyed in the society.

If the assumption in all this is that Afrikaaners or white supremacists, in post-apartheid South Africa or anywhere, would learn from and want to emulate Mandela’s example and eliminate racism and the violation of human rights in all its manifestations, then it is clearly a grave misreading of history.

Now that Madiba has been laid to rest, there remain some grim realities for the entire nation of South Africa to confront.

It stands a far better chance of doing so in a manner that serves the entire nation and that has the potential of winning the freedom of which Mandela dreamed if it focuses much more on the struggle for justice and human rights as Mandela’s legacy, rather than on Mandela as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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