JOHANNESBURG – Nelson Mandela’s long-time private assistant and “honorary granddaughter” spoke Monday of her deep love for the man who changed her life forever, though at great personal cost.

Zelda la Grange, who came from Afrikaner middle-class obscurity to become the right hand of South Africa’s first black president, spoke to a private broadcaster of her love for the man she called “Khulu”, a shortened form of grandfather in Mandela’s native language, isiXhosa.

The pressure was relentless, the 43-year-old said — following Mandela around the world, organising his every move and shielding him from the never-ending stream of people clamouring for a moment in his presence.

But she would never have swapped the experience for a chance at a regular family life.

“I deeply loved him,” La Grange told 702 Talk Radio of her mentor.

“I don’t think you are ever prepared enough,” she said of his death on Thursday at the age of 95.

“You are still shocked and saddened when the time comes. We had prepared ourselves emotionally but still we are overcome by this feeling of loss and sadness.”

In the latter part of his presidency — which ran from 1994 to 1999 — and thereafter, La Grange became a fixture by Mandela’s side.

Her devotion surprised some, given her origins in the Afrikaner community that had jailed Mandela for 27 years under the apartheid laws of racial segregation.

A man takes a picture of giant photographs of late South African president Nelson Mandela hanging on a facade of the South African Parliament on December 9, 2013, in Cape Town, on the eve of a memorial ceremony for the anti-apartheid icon who died on December 5, 2013. South Africa raced Monday to meet the unprecedented logistical challenge of hosting close to 100 world leaders flying in from every corner of the globe for the state funeral of freedom icon Nelson Mandela. AFP.
A man takes a picture of giant photographs of late South African president Nelson Mandela hanging on a facade of the South African Parliament on December 9, 2013, in Cape Town, on the eve of a memorial ceremony for the anti-apartheid icon who died on December 5, 2013. Photo:  AFP.

She has been widely hailed in recent days for her loyalty to Mandela.

“Zelda, wherever you may be, we want to thank you,” Archbishop Emeritus and fellow Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu said Monday.

“You have been really quite amazing in the care that you have given to Tata (father), and we salute you.”

Addressing a memorial service in Johannesburg, Tutu said of La Grange that one “couldn’t have a more Afrikaans Afrikaner”.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Sunday that South Africa owed La Grange a debt of gratitude.

“She sacrificed her youth, her time. I don’t think she had a boyfriend. It’s time for us to express grateful appreciation,” the minister told the South African Press Association.

But La Grange said she felt uncomfortable with the use of the word “sacrifice”.

“You cannot use ‘sacrifice’, ‘Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Zelda la Grange’ in the same sentence,” she said.

“My sacrifice is something I missed maybe as a result of working so hard. (It) can never be compared to what Mandela gave.”

The experience, though often draining, was a privilege that taught her humility, La Grange said. “I’d never want to have things differently.”

She said she had stopped visiting her former boss a few months ago as it became unbearable to witness his deterioration.

“I wanted to remember him the way I knew him,” she said.

“It was a difficult time, but I must tell you every time I went over the last few months I made sure I said what I wanted to say and that gave me some comfort: I said what needed to be said.”

Mandela, who nicknamed her “Zeldina”, had been an inspiring and patient boss, La Grange said.

“Madiba was the easiest person to work with, the best teacher, a mentor,” she said, using the Nobel laureate’s clan name.

And she urged South Africans to study and emulate Mandela’s legacy.

“We feel very emotional now because we’ve lost him, but it is also a time to be reminded right now how important it is to really study that legacy and to implement those values and morals … and then we can achieve the South Africa that we all dream of.”

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