July 17, 2014


Good Morning, Mr. Mandela: A Memoir. By Zelda la Grange. Viking. $28.95.

     Imagine approaching a publisher with a book that chronicles your life with a man beyond goodness, a true saint on Earth, someone who worked tirelessly for his people all his life with never a thought for himself or his own welfare, the purest and highest expression of everything a human can be. And imagine that his name is Winthrop Morris-Huntington III. Will your book get even the slightest consideration? Will any publisher believe your description of it and of its central personality is anything other than self-serving, the creation of privilege, oppression of others and gross miscarriages of justice? Now imagine using the identical description of the book and its central character, but saying that his name is N’dgondo N’bibwe. Will any publisher be Iess than intrigued, willing at the very least to hear you out and find out the wondrousness of this marvelous person?

     This is the way subtle, insidious prejudice works today when it comes to the modern sainted, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Whether the willingness to see these people as vastly better than the rest of humanity is fair and reasonable redress for the centuries in which darker-skinned people were viciously oppressed is an open question. But it is a question that is rarely asked, since even to ask it invites identification of the questioner as being that pariah among pariahs, a dyed-in-the-wool racist – and therefore immediately dismissible, under the unwritten but harsh laws of political correctness, without any need to listen to anything he or she may say. Again, whether this is fair recompense for the past is a worthy question, if anyone dares to ask it; but the refusal to ask it masks a fear of reasoned discussion that no avalanche of books about the holiness-on-Earth of men such as King and Mandela can entirely conceal.

     As it happens, the fanciful notion of differing treatment has, in the case of Mandela, a clear, real-world demonstration. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, but he did not win it alone. He shared it with F.W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, the man who released Mandela from prison after 27 years, the man who skillfully dismantled the nation’s old apartheid system and laws and earned, on his own, the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1992. Yet to mention him in the same breath as Mandela is close to sacrilege. There are no shelves-upon-shelves of books devoted to de Klerk, who at age 78 is still alive and active.

     De Klerk gets a passing mention, and only a passing one, in Zelda la Grange’s Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, one of the latest in the shelves-upon-shelves of books proclaiming Mandela to be beyond great, indeed almost beyond human in his wonderfulness. La Grange’s book is the inspiring story – they are all inspiring stories – of how she, a white South African woman, overcame her personal prejudices because of Mandela, worked in his government as a ministerial typist, later became one of his three private secretaries, and eventually (in 2002) left government to work full-time for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Being la Grange’s autobiography as much as another biography of Mandela, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela has personal touches that set it apart from the many, many other books of its ilk. Its style, unfortunately, is not always equal to its wholehearted and good-hearted attempts to communicate: “Change is inevitable and I was ready to drive myself past the finish line, probably for the first time in my life at full speed. …I probably missed some valuable opportunities to get a deeper understanding of what was historically happening around me.”

     Mandela, to whom la Grange often refers by his honorific clan name, Madiba, is never less than wonderful throughout this book: “Madiba was well known to be an outstanding fundraiser.” “Madiba was always well groomed and took great care in making sure that his skin was well moisturized…” “He could never speak of ‘me’ or ‘I.’ It was part of the humble man that he was and everything included everyone around him.” “Madiba had the ability to trust people unconditionally.” There is nothing new here, nothing surprising, nothing revelatory.

     There is more of interest in some of the things la Grange writes about herself. “I had to face the fact that a young white Afrikaner woman caring for [Mandela] was always going to be an unlikely and unpopular situation. Yet I was determined to never abandon him for as long as he wanted me.” “People often asked me over the years what exactly my job entailed. I didn’t know where to start but would say, ‘I can type, answer telephones, call press conferences and export springbok and oryx to Saudi Arabia.’” But la Grange tends to retreat quickly from self-revelatory comments, as if unwilling to seem to be sharing even the smallest part of the spotlight with Mandela.

     The problem with the near-deification (“sanctification” seems an inadequate word) of Mandela, in Good Morning, Mr. Mandela and elsewhere, is that in the long run it dehumanizes the man, just as similar treatment dehumanizes Martin Luther King, Jr. La Grange mentions occasional flare-ups of temper and other minor peccadillos of Mandela, but by and large, she takes great pains to portray him as very much of the world but not entirely in the world – a pretty good description of a saint or deity on Earth. What was truly remarkable about Mandela, though – and about King and the few others like them – was that they were human, complete with flaws and foibles and mistakes aplenty, in their personal lives as well as their political ones. This does not take anything away from them – in fact, it adds to the profundity of their accomplishments to realize that some people, a very few, are fully human and at the same time truly able to transcend the worst of humanity and maybe, just maybe, take some of the rest of us a step or two higher along with them. Good Morning, Mr. Mandela is ultimately about a figure that no reader can aspire to emulate; he is simply on an unattainable level. And that is too bad, because we need more like Nelson Mandela, many more, and to the extent that their accomplishments seem those of an otherworldly giant, to that extent they appear forever out of the reach of the rest of us – brilliance foreclosed  to mere mortals who can only read books like this one and gasp in wonder.

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