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Mandela's assistant spills the beans on the great man
Nelson Mandela is neither a god nor a saint, he's got vices and virtues like any other person, says his personal assistant Zelda la Grange.

Nelson Mandela is neither a god nor a saint, according to his personal assistant Zelda la Grange.

"He's got vices and virtues... like any other person. He's a human being," she told a Cape Town Press Club lunch on Thursday.

La Grange, who has been at Mandela's side for the better part of a decade, did not go into details of the former president's vices, but did reveal that he could display a fearsome temper.

"It's not a sight I would even want people to see," she said with a grin. "If you really want to see him angry, you should make him wait an hour for an appointment. There's been a few occasions when I've seen him angry. It's an ugly sight."

She said she had learned many lessons from Mandela, including approach, attitude, and having respect for people.

"Just to ask a person how they are, just to show that basic level of respect for a human being," she said. "To change one person's attitude through your own actions is enough to change the world."

La Grange, insisting that she was "probably one of the most ordinary South Africans in South Africa", also recalled how politically naive she had been when she joined the presidency as a senior typist in 1994.

She knew little of the "tall black man" who was president other than that he had spent 27 years in prison on an island somewhere.

Her father had told her Mandela was a terrorist and a communist. "He was what I considered armed and dangerous," she said.

Her views changed when she started reading about South African politics and talking to other staffers in the office, and through contact with Mandela himself.

One day when their paths crossed in the presidency he stopped to shake hands with her and spoke to her in what she initially took for a foreign language.

"My first thought was he was speaking to me in Bulgarian or something," she said. "But then I realised it was Afrikaans."

It had not been his accent that was the difficulty, but the notion that he was speaking to her in her home language. This broke down all barriers.

"He was able to win me over immediately. I decided there was no better strategist in the world than Nelson Mandela," she said.

As another illustration of her initial naivete, she said that one day security at Tuynhuys called her to receive some visitors. The strangers told her they were from the NIA, which for all she knew, she said, could have been an airline, and said they had come to "sweep the president's office".

"I said that's fine, we've got permanently employed cleaners," she said.

One of the NIA men was so overcome by her reply that he had to leave the building to regain his composure before coming back to explain that they were from the National Intelligence Agency and wanted to check for electronic listening devices.

La Grange said that in the wake of his "second retirement" Mandela was revelling in the freedom of being able to decide from day to day what he wanted to do with his time.

He was taking great pleasure in revisiting places in Soweto he remembered from his younger days, and regularly visiting his wife Graca in Mozambique.

Work on the second volume of his autobiography was going "very slow" at this stage.

Asked what she herself wanted to do when she retired from her job, she said she hoped to write, and to record thoughts and experiences from which other people could learn.

"And I hope to work for the SPCA for the rest of my life," she said. - Sapa