Zelda la Grange: The beginning of the end
Zelda la Grange remembers the moment she realised Nelson Mandela was nearing the end.
In her book Good Morning, Mr Mandela, Zelda la Grange looks back on the months leading up to the passing of her 'Khulu' and how she battled to understand why he didn't let go.
There is a scene in the movie _Long Walk to Freedom _where the character of Nelson Mandela slowly walks up a hill in Qunu. His back is towards the camera, as he walks away. The light is gentle, his familiar gait meandering up a gentle slope. I knew it wasn't him. It was Idris Elba, a British actor, but the image was so powerful, so evocative, so gutwretching that I burst into tears in the cinema. The tears came and came, over and over and in a way I have never experienced before. They just pumped from my eyes uncontrollably and streamed down my cheeks. It didn't help that I tried to stop it. That night when I first saw _Long Walk to Freedom _at its premiere in South Africa I also cried myself to sleep, something I had never done in forty-three years. It was like a pre-mourning. I knew Madiba had almost gone. That he was in pain. But this re‑enactment of his life pierced through all that and reminded me about him so much. Madiba never got to see the movie. It was released in November 2013 when he was near the end. It was a story he had given his blessing to almost two decades earlier. The producer, Anant Singh, bought the rights to Madiba's life story and it had taken twenty years for it to come to the big screen, just in time for us to be reminded of his story.
Besides reminding us of Madiba's sacrifices, the movie also reminded me of a younger, fitter Nelson Mandela. His body was so broken, so damaged and deteriorated now but in the movie he was strong, robust, vibrant. He loved to dance, not that shuffle of his later years when his knees had given out, but the jazzy bop of the 1950s. Madiba used to tell us how he went dancing in Sophiatown and through the movie I could now visualize such stories. We would often sit during lunch or dinner on foreign travels, often just the two of us, and he would eagerly offer the details of his early life and he had the perfect audience in me. I had never had a problem allowing my imagination to run with a story and I would question him about his looks, his posture, his dress code, whether he charmed girls and what the dancing was like. He was amused by my directness and I often asked: 'Did women just fall over their feet to dance with you?' and he would laugh in a somewhat shy way and boast with a 'Yes of course!', upon which I would burst out laughing.
I had stopped seeing Madiba a few months before. Mrs Machel called me to the house one day to have tea, after Madiba had been discharged, although he was still considered critical but stable. She said that she knew how much I loved Madiba and that she didn't think it was advisable for me to see his deterioration knowing how I felt about him. At first I had suspected that the family told her to tell me that I was no longer able to see him, but after thinking about it I was happy that it happened. I didn't want to see him in a powerless state. I didn't want to lose control over my emotions in his presence. It was only after his death that I learned that indeed I had been banned from seeing him.
I was constantly battling in my mind, trying to understand why he didn't let go and whether he was able to let go himself. It haunts you. It eats you daily, piece by piece, not knowing and not understanding what was happening to him.
At times I wondered, like many South Africans, whether he was being kept alive artificially. But Mrs Machel and Josina told me there was a still a spark there, that he occasionally held someone's hand or managed to open his eyes. But by November even that didn't happen. He was slipping away, despite an overwhelming effort by the doctors to keep him alive.
His doctors thought it was amazing that he had such strength even when he was so weak. I often wondered - was he now becoming afraid of dying? He was often flippant about death, saying things like 'when you're gone your body is dead'. People raised the issues around his ancestors not having called upon him yet and I wondered whether he was aware of these issues. He was respectful of tradition but not overly obsessed with it.
As the days passed, I was permanently on standby, anxious, waiting for an update on his health. You start living in a permanent state of limbo. I communicated with Mrs Machel and Josina by text and messaging because we were worried. Sometimes I met them trying to resume duties as normal and I would not often ask too many questions but just 'Is he OK?', 'Mum, do you think he is free of pain?' or 'Mum, do you think he is aware of what is happening?' I was also trying to be one less person asking after him and, rather, showing my support to him, through supporting her. He had after all told me the first day I met her in Paris back in 1996 that I had to look after her and not lose sight of her at any given point. I was still doing just that.
And then the message that I knew was inevitable. On 3 December Mum and Josina told me that Madiba's condition was deteriorating. This seemed like the beginning of the end.
I saw Josina on Thursday, 5 December at the Foundation. She looked exhausted.
Early evening on Thursday, 5 December Josina phoned me with instructions from Mrs Machel. I had to inform some of Madiba's closest friends that things were turning for the worse. It was so hard. So brutally frank. It took me hours to get hold of everyone on my list. They included people like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Thabo Mbeki, George Bizos and others close to Madiba but who were outside government structures and who would not normally be informed in such instances. I was strong when I started making the calls but their reaction, a mixture of pain, shock and disbelief destroyed the strong spirit with which I started off. After each call I composed myself and repeated Madiba's quote: 'It always seems impossible until it is done', and I would call the next person.
Later in the evening two helicopters flew dangerously low over my house. As I lived halfway between Pretoria, the base where military helicopters were stationed, and Johannesburg, where Madiba's house was, the helicopters had to fly over the area where I lived. Was the military preparing for the worst? Or had it happened? If it was the military it meant that it had happened. There were two issues to consider: firstly they probably became involved at that point from a protocol point of view, and secondly I thought that they perhaps feared the much speculated _uhuru _or 'night of the long knives' when, it was said, blacks would kill whites the night after Madiba died. It was only the extremists that participated in this kind of talk and I knew by now that South Africa was stronger and more capable as a nation of dealing with what we all feared, black and white: Madiba's death.
And then it was done. I just knew he was gone. I didn't have to ask.
_Extracted from GOOD MORNING, MR MANDELA, published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, at R295. © Zelda la Grange. _ www.penguin.co.za