Nelson Mandela. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Nelson Mandela. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

One of Nelson Mandela’s closest and most unlikely friendships was with Zelda la Grange, a white Afrikaans secretary who rose to be his personal aide, travelling companion and confidante.

As South Africa celebrates 100 years since Mandela’s birth, La Grange sat down with AFP to remember the man she worked for over 19 extraordinary years.

"I pretty much considered these men as the enemy. I was afraid, and then this kind gentleman stood in front of me.

"The first thing I noticed was the kindness on his face and the sincerity of his smile and he extended his hand waiting from me to reciprocate.

"He held my hand into a very firm grip and spoke to me.

"I had to say ‘Excuse me Mr President, could you repeat.’ I realised he was speaking in Afrikaans — my own language and the language of the oppressor and the people who imprisoned him.

"He destroyed my defences immediately. It was a very emotional moment. I felt guilty because this person extended respect to me which I think at that point I didn’t deserve. I started crying.

"He had the ability to respect any human being. When he looked in a person’s eyes, he was really paying attention, he was really interested in that person.

"It was definitely his greatest strength and he always choose humanity over ideology.

"People saw him and dealt with him as a statesman and a famous icon, but very few people acknowledged him as a human being with the vices and virtues that he often reminded us he had.

"He was a sensitive person. He could be a very stubborn human being and when he took decisions ... it was very difficult to change his mind.

"We often had political discussions over lunch or when we were travelling and we were sometimes arguing about the past and apartheid.

"It was never in a confrontational way, it was always in a respectful way because he understood where I came from.

"He knew that he could trust me 100% and he appreciated that. For me professionally, the trust that he invested in me was the highlight of my career.

"He was a very meticulous kind of person. He was very strict, very disciplined, he hated people prescribing to him or trying to manipulate him.

"There were very few things that really made him angry — dishonesty was always making him angry.

"I noticed the damage from him being isolated from his family for so many years. It was very difficult for him to establish relationships ... that’s one of the things he felt sorry about.

"There was a sad part in Nelson Mandela and it was only when he married Graca Machel that he really enjoyed the things we take for granted — like going out in a restaurant.

"He often announced that he wanted to buy a pen or a book ... he just wanted to be normal, that was something that he missed."

"It was on July 11 2013 ... I went to the hospital to wish him well because I was afraid that something may happen while I was away. I went to his hospital’s bed to find him not really responding to people around him.

"He heard my voice, I touched him and he suddenly opened his eyes and he smiled. It was not something that happened often those days because he was very ill already.

"The fact that he recognised me, the fact that he acknowledged me, that I brought this smile to his face — that’s the biggest recognition that a person could wish for.

"That’s my fondest memory of him, what a wonderful way to end a relationship."