Zelda le Grange is a double beneficiary of the South African political bureaucracy.
She earned her position in the Nationalist government bureaucracy prior to 1994 by virtue of that government’s separatist employment policies.
Post-1994, through the benevolence of Nelson Mandela, she was elevated from being an ordinary typist to becoming his personal assistant (PA) – a position that would earn her further lifelong privileges.
A fortnight ago, she rode roughshod over those privileges by tweeting reckless comments that touched a raw nerve in a nation that is still brutalised by history. Little did she know that her tweets would cause a national storm and that she would be finding herself having to apologise to the nation for her naivety.
Over the past several days much criticism and abuse has been levelled at her. For some, her apology is acceptable – we are after all a nation that is driven by Madiba’s spirit of reconciliation.
For many others, her apology adds further insult to injury. Perhaps, La Grange would have fared better off if she simply had said: “Sorry”, and did not go into providing the ridiculous context for her tweets.
Despite being at Mandela’s side for the best part of the last two decades, La Grange’s biggest weakness is that she has not developed any kind of political sensibility because her role was not about engaging with him politically. Her tasks were merely about maintaining his diary, pouring his coffee, typing his correspondence and bringing him his slippers.
If she had any savvy she would have scooped the opportunity of having such a powerful position to read, engage, grow her mind and leverage the privilege of being Mandela’s PA. The job offered the possibility of becoming a powerful opinion-shaper in South Africa.
La Grange. however, did not grow up as an activist and neither did she come through the ranks of a political movement to understand that her position required her to absorb from the political astuteness of Mandela. Instead, she remained the blonde cover girl.
The only difference is that she did not have to wait for a weekly magazine to tell her story. The nation was waiting to hear her tell it in her own book.
Good Morning Mr Mandela which was anticipated to unravel an astute woman who for years earned a reputation as Mandela’s gatekeeper disappointingly became a naive personal memoir. It failed to offer any testimony that La Grange had the potential of becoming an opinion-shaper.
Her tweets these past two weeks, even after she had apologised and had withdrawn her original comment, have instead become the anchor for old-styled racists to hang onto. For them, La Grange is like the lost child who went missing among the black race and who has now finally come home.
Unfortunately, even those who are hurt by her tweets perceive her as the wandering child who has gone back home to roost.
For La Grange, these events will be a valuable lesson. She has probably learnt that social media when not managed correctly can be a destructive tool.
It has hit hard at the most fragile parts of her personality, her political naivety. This was a woman who stood out like a lighthouse for a generation of hope but with a single tweet she put out her own light.
Her criticism of President Jacob Zuma are sentiments that are expressed in South Africa all the time.
She had every right to express those criticisms, but she framed those criticisms in a context that rubbed salt in the wounds of a nation that is still recovering from its past.
That was downright stupid. Calling on Jan van Riebeeck on the eve of the anniversary of his death was reputation suicide.
Moral of the story: even if you are excellent as your boss’s PA you should try harder if you want to be his tweetheart when he is dead.