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Tue Jun 28 17:02:24 CAT 2016

Ugly truth behind Mandela's final days

Sue de Groot | 15 June, 2014 08:08
Caring touch: Zelda adjusts Madiba's hearing aid during his acceptance of historical collections from the national archives at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 2008

Sensational new details have emerged about vicious squabbles during former president Nelson Mandela's last months alive

In Good Morning, Mr Mandela - Zelda la Grange's highly anticipated memoir, which is to be released this week - the late statesman's personal assistant lifts the lid on behind-the-scenes family drama as Madiba lay on his death bed, as well as the power struggles that marred the period immediately after his death.

Among the disturbing revelations in the book are that:

Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, had to get accreditation for her own husband's funeral and the Machel family were allocated only four spots at the service;

Makaziwe Mandela, Mandela's eldest daughter from his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, tauntingly referred to Machel as "Ms Frantic" following a press report that she had been frantic when an ambulance carrying her sick husband broke down on the M1 highway on the way from his Houghton home to a Pretoria hospital;

Even though the Mandela Foundation and La Grange had stopped scheduling visits by people who were not familiar to Mandela after his condition worsened, unnamed members of the family would take advantage of his inability to express his wishes by bringing strangers to the house to see him;

World-renowned stars Bono and Charlize Theron were initially refused access to a VIP suite during the chaotic memorial service to honour Mandela at Soweto's FNB Stadium; and

It took the intervention of former president FW de Klerk for Bono and Naomi Campbell to get accreditation for Mandela's lying-in-state at the Union Buildings.

The book's revelations are bound to ruffle feathers. In an interview with the Sunday Times this week, La Grange said she was prepared for criticism.

"I expect backlash from a lot of people. You can never write something or expose yourself like this and expect no one to be upset about it. I'm not going to engage in any public fights. I know I've told the truth - that there's not one line that can be contested in the book," she said.

La Grange, who worked as Mandela's personal assistant for 19 years, spent more time with Mandela than any other person during his presidency and retirement.

She started off as a 23-year-old conservative Afrikaner typist in the president's office and became his trusted assistant and spokeswoman.

"I couldn't even begin to count the hours I spent with Madiba," she said.

The book reveals that factions in Mandela's family used the dying statesman's inability to express his wishes to "step in and start controlling matters to their advantage".

These actions included banning some of his favourite people from visiting him during his last months and bringing strangers to meet him when he was too ill to express his wishes. His beloved wife was also repeatedly sidelined from certain key decisions concerning his legacy and wellbeing.

In one of the chapters, La Grange writes that at one point a frail Mandela was moved to Qunu - far from friends and medical attention - at the insistence of a faction in the family, and certain family members did not want La Grange to travel to see him, even though he was lonely and received few visitors.

La Grange says Machel was "the only person who really made him happy", although another anecdote illustrates the friction Machel had to endure as a member of the Mandela family.

In the middle of winter in 2013, a gravely ill Mandela was taken to hospital in an unmarked vehicle at 3am, an incident widely reported in the media. The press reported that Machel was frantic when the vehicle broke down for 40 minutes. The next day, Makaziwe entered the hospital calling Machel "Ms Frantic".

"Mum [as La Grange refers to Machel] was hurt and emotionally brutalised," writes La Grange, adding that she and Machel's daughter, Josina, constantly tried to keep her strong by supporting her.

In another chapter, La Grange details that after Mandela was hospitalised in March 2013, Makaziwe told La Grange that because she was no longer an employee, she was not welcome to visit her father.

With Mandela too ill to speak for her, Machel stepped in.

La Grange writes: "Mum had to defend me once again, arguing that she was willing to defend Madiba's decisions whether they liked it or not, and that she was going to see that his wishes were fulfilled until the day he passed on.

"She told them that my presence from time to time provided him with emotional stability."

La Grange eventually managed to see her boss.

"The poison in the family was leaking out everywhere. Many of his family had never wanted me around and they were now getting their chance," she writes.

Not all his children resented Mandela's relationship with La Grange. After being told that Zelda had visited her father in hospital a few days before, Zindzi Mandela reportedly responded: "Then I can rest."

The last time La Grange saw him alive was July 11 2013, when he was unable to talk but could still smile.

"I told him how much I love him ... and so on ... ja," she said.

According to Good Morning, Mr Mandela, the Mandela family politics took a heavy toll on Machel.

"I don't know of any person alive who has been treated with the amount of disrespect that people have shown towards Mrs Machel," writes La Grange. "Politics within his family about his funeral took place for years before his death.

"Mrs Machel and some of the children had refused to be party to arrangements about Madiba's funeral. He was still in fairly good health and it was unthinkable to be planning someone's funeral while the person was still happily alive, still being cared for by his wife."

The quality of Mandela's medical care, which, as a former president, fell under the control of the Ministry of Defence, was a constant source of friction.

At one stage, the possibility of replacing his medical team was raised by Lindiwe Sisulu, then the minister of defence.

"Mrs Machel felt hopeless and undermined ... The minister explored the possibility of replacing the entire team, but Mrs Machel felt that they would (figuratively speaking) crucify her if she dared interfere with appointees endorsed by the family."

La Grange writes about an incident in Cape Town when a team of military specialists missed an appointment to examine Mandela owing to red tape.

"I enquired about the specialists and was told that they could not come to the house by themselves but were awaiting orders, like in any military bureaucracy, to be fetched from the hospital and brought to the house. When I called them and asked whether they couldn't drive themselves, I was told they were not allowed."

After Mandela died on December 5 last year, the Machel family were told they would only be allowed five accreditation cards to the funeral, which included one for his widow, Graça.

La Grange details the chaos during the FNB Stadium memorial service, when she had to improvise when Charlize Theron and Bono were refused access to a VIP suite and had to watch part of the proceedings behind a screen at the back of the stage.

One of the most heart-rending events she describes is going with advocate George Bizos, one of Madiba's closest friends and most trusted compatriots, to greet the family before the Qunu funeral. Bizos had been part of Mandela's legal team during the Rivonia Trial and had regularly visited him when he was in prison on Robben Island.

The front door to the Qunu home was locked and they were refused entry. They entered through the kitchen, only to be told by Makaziwe: "We don't want you people in the house."

A frail Bizos was then grudgingly allowed to stay, but La Grange was ordered to leave.

La Grange was also barred from the grave site and at least two of Mandela's household employees were pulled out of a row at the funeral and prevented from going to the burial.

Makaziwe Mandela said La Grange would have to substantiate whatever references she made about her family, "otherwise she will be sued".

When the Sunday Times contacted her this week, Makaziwe said she did not want to hear what La Grange had written about her.

"I don't want to talk to you guys. Let her memoirs come out and I'll see what she writes about me. What Zelda writes ... I'll deal with it at that point in time."

La Grange writes: "I found it difficult and emotionally challenging to reconcile his last years and what we had experienced for 16-odd years with what was happening now. To say it was in complete contrast would be putting it mildly."

Yet speaking out now, she is without anger.

"I am tempted to be bitter," she said, "but how can I be bitter about one incident in my life when he was not bitter about anything? He pulls me back. And Mrs Machel has been my compass. For years she tried to teach me that you can't be responsible for other people's relationships. Maybe it took this event for me to grasp the fact that my relationship with Madiba was the only thing that mattered. How I was treated by anyone else didn't matter.

"My book was not written as a definitive account - to say 'this is Madiba'. It's just my experience," she said.

"Madiba belongs to the world. Nothing can change who he was. There are political parties and sections of society that are entitled to claim him, but as long as it doesn't affect his legacy, I think everyone should be free to think about him and remember him in their way."

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