As Executive Personal Assistant to Nelson Mandela, Zelda La Grange has had an amazing life, travelling with the former South African President on more than 180 trips abroad, meeting world leaders, royalty, celebrities, and coordinating his itinerary, travel arrangements, security and transport. Always by his side in both public and private – at home and abroad – she has remained in Mandela’s service even after his official retirement, managing the post-Presidential office, as well as all business related to his public life. Finally, after nearly two decades of loyal service, the Pretoria-born 41-year-old can devote time to two of her passions – adventure travel and BMW GS motorcycles, as she reveals in an exclusive interview with BMW Motorrad…
So, finally some time for Zelda La Grange?
Well, I’m still employed by Mr. Mandela, but I’ve got some spare time for the first time in 18 years and I love my motorbikes so I want to develop this side of things. I’ve been riding for about seven years, but have taken it seriously for the last four years. I’ve got an F 800 GS and an R 1200 GS Adventure.
And you also have a great country in which to ride your GS bikes…
South African roads are tailor-made for a bike like the GS – and the most beautiful roads in South Africa are the gravel ones, of which there are many. You don’t have to be a serious off-road rider to be able to manage them either. We’ve got such diversity in our country to show. Half an hour’s ride will take you from the ocean to the desert, up into the Karoo, so it’s ideal for adventure riders.
What made you choose the GS?
I love the fact it’s a dual-purpose bike you can go anywhere on. You don’t have to be skilled to ride it either. I want a workhorse bike that does everything and can’t imagine owning or riding anything else. I just love them!
Hence the development of African Biking Adventures?
Yes, South Africa is ideal for this type of lifestyle motorcycling. BMW Motorrad helped change a stigma in South Africa surrounding biking. The GS is very much about the lifestyle surrounding motorcycling and with African Biking Adventures, it’s professional people we’re targeting, who want to use their money and spare time to see some amazing things and enjoy some fantastic bike riding along the way. In the past, people were nervous about coming to South Africa for various reasons, but once they’ve been over, they love it.
The country has been through significant upheaval in recent years. When growing up, were you aware of the enormity of the political change going on around you?
Not at all, I grew up in a family that was completely isolated from politics. When I started working for President Mandela in 1994 I hardly knew about him.
So the last 18 years must have really changed your outlook then?
They have made me really value the smaller things in life. I pay particular attention to things like respect – Mr. Mandela was all about respect. My entire life has revolved around respecting and accepting other people so I’ve changed a lot. If you knew me 18 years ago I was a very selfish person and now my life is focussed on how I can help other people – what I can mean to other people – and I wasn’t like that before.
It sounds like Mr. Mandela changed your entire attitude about life?
Yes, I certainly value life differently and think about things differently and I’m very grateful because of his influence in my life. It’s changed me. If you are close to someone like that all the time, you want to be a better person because you can see what it does for someone who has chosen to be a better person.
What was the best advice he ever gave you?
The way you approach a person will determine how that person reacts to you. If you question another person’s integrity then it’s a reflection of your own integrity. It’s so simple to apply that to everyday life, and it’s something that stays with you every single moment of every day. He is a strategist of note and was very good at going into a situation prepared. And if you watch him – and I’ve watched him closely for 18 years – every single thing he does, he does with great thought. Bringing this back to everyday life, if you approach people without any preconceived ideas of prejudices it makes life so much easier. For someone who was in prison for 27 years, he had a long time to think about things like this. How he approached his wardens, for example, would determine how he got treated. He took a conscious decision how to behave – and we all have that choice.
What were the highlights of your time with him?
There were many of course, but one that definitely stays in my memory is when we were in Zurich to hear the result of the bid for the 2010 World Cup – and it was announced that it would be held in South Africa. We had put so much energy into that bid and when we were finally successful he was so happy that he actually started crying. It was so emotional because his last years of working energy really went into trying to get that bid in South Africa and as you know it was a great success. Even FIFA said it was one of the best in the world ever, so I’m very proud I was part of that achievement.
Presidents, politicians, celebrities, tribal leaders, royalty – you’ve met them all, but who made the most impression on you?
You know what, you’re going to laugh when I tell you this… It’s true, I’ve met them all and it’s been great but can I tell you that at BMW Motorrad Days this year, I sat at dinner and Chris Pfeiffer was sitting opposite me and I thought he was great. I saw his show and he’s the best at what he does. People who achieve in life – people who are serious about what they do – are special. For sure, I’ve met many famous people but at the end of the day they’re all human beings that have usually just done well for themselves by simply working hard.
What about Mr Mandela now, how does he spend his days?
He lives on the East Cape in South Africa on his farm. He’s really retired now at age 94. He’s fine, but he doesn’t receive visitors any more. I usually go there every week for about two days but at his age he’s just concerned with everyday life and things around him, like his family. He doesn’t want to be surprised in any way so that’s the kind of environment we create for him now. He often says that the thing he missed most about prison was the time to think, to reflect, and now at last he has the time to do that. He has this kind of freedom for the first time in his life.
Finally, what about the new Zelda La Grange and her plans for the future?
My life has changed so much in the past months now he’s retired, so finally I can make choices for myself and plan ahead. Now I can do the things I love for the first time. Motorbiking is one of them, and being on my GS in the Western Cape is one of the things I enjoy most. I haven’t ridden in Europe yet, or America, but these places are definitely on my list. I haven’t had a private or personal life for 18 years and now slowly that’s coming back.
Explore the best South Africa has to offer on an all inclusive 10 day motorcycling adventure. Allow African Biking Adventures to introduce you to the spectacular images, fragrances, tastes, diversity and hospitality that South Africa and its people have to offer. Combine your lust for adventure with the sighting of the Big 5 on a game farm and experience an African adventure of a lifetime, on a motorcycle. More information at www.africanbikingadventures.com