By: Stephanie Findlay Special to the Star, Published on Wed Jan 21 2015
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA—A former personal assistant to Nelson Mandela found herself thrust into the middle of South Africa’s enduring racial divide this week after ranting about the ruling ANC party.
“Jacob Zuma made it clear whites are not welcome in SA,” tweeted Zelda la Grange about the country’s president. “I’m SICK of Jacob Zuma’s constant go at whites every few months,” she said (emphasis hers). “Why can’t we coexist without it having to be at the expense of one another?”
The rant came from an unexpected source; La Grange has branded herself as a reformed Afrikaner, a living symbol of post-apartheid reconciliation between whites and blacks.
Coming from a stereotypical middle-class Afrikaans family, La Grange said she grew up supporting segregation. “We were, I suppose, racists,” she wrote in her bestselling memoir, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela.
She joined the president’s office as a typist in 1994 and quickly became one of Mandela’s most trusted advisers. After being appointed his secretary, La Grange changed her ways, championing Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation. She would remain his faithful assistant until he died, earning the nickname the “Rottweiler” for her ferocious loyalty to South Africa’s first black president.
Yet her outburst on Twitter and the following firestorm showed how South Africa’s racial divide remains, despite 20 years of post-apartheid politics.
On Sunday, La Grange accused Zuma of creating an environment where whites were unwelcome after he said South Africa’s problems began when Jan van Riebeeck started a colony in Cape Town.
She questioned why Zuma’s ruling ANC party was opposed to naming a street after Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid president who helped oversee the country’s transition from whites-only rule to democracy. (Earlier in the week, ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said, “all he — De Klerk — did, among other things, was to maintain apartheid.”)
The response to La Grange was as rapid as it was diverse. Some Twitter users compared her to the Ku Klux Klan, while others contributed to the revealing hashtag #ZeldaDoesntEvenKnow, sharing racist experiences in present-day South Africa. “When you crossing road and the white folk lock their car doors as you walking past #ZeldaDoesntEvenKnow,” said @SiyaBeyile.
Though La Grange apologized profusely in a 14-part tweet, the public flogging continued, culminating with an ANC politician describing her as a “spoiled white person.”
“She preaches non-racialism to protect white people. Now she’s sowing racial division,” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said to the Beeld, an Afrikaans newspaper, on Monday.
The debate about race comes as the country’s economy is faltering. The rand is plummeting in value and households are facing months of rolling blackouts after years of mismanagement at the country’s state-run power utility. Meanwhile, Zuma is embroiled in a series of corruption scandals.
Still, La Grange went about her criticism the wrong way, said Pierre de Vos, a constitutional lawyer. “If you’re a white person and your tone is one of superiority and of victimhood, black people who still often experience racism and white people who know about it get really upset and say this is really unacceptable,” said De Vos, speaking from Cape Town.
“There is a very strong feeling among South Africans that if you deny what happened in the past you’re denying people their humanity, and saying the history of marginalization and oppression doesn’t matter.”
The limits of free speech are constantly being tested in South Africa, where the brutal legacy of apartheid is never far away. In 2011, then-ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was found guilty of hate speech for singing “Shoot the Boer,” an apartheid-era song that describes shooting Afrikaners.
De Vos points out that La Grange won’t be facing any hate-speech charges. Still, he says, he hopes South Africa can have this conversation again from a less polarized point of view.
“The kind of tone Zelda la Grange uses, I’m not sure it actually creates a space for reasoned discussion,” he said. “But I think it is important to have the debate. Especially because white people often do not want to talk about race at all.”