“Gee, Oudoom’s Mandela sermon was picked up all over the world. Lots of people read it and some even commented on it. The old man must be proud.” Boggel isn’t sure whether Servaas aimed this remark at Mandela or Oudoom, but lets it slide anyway. “Whatever people say about Madiba, though, he certainly influenced the global village.”
“Maybe that was his secret – understanding the world as a village. Lots of opinions and lots of ideologies. But…in a village you listen to everybody before making a rash decision, and having grown up in a small village, that gave him the background, I suppose.” Vetfaan is all too familiar with villages – African villages – where a child has many fathers and mothers and everybody chips in when it comes to teaching, disciplining and caring. “I think that put him streets ahead of the Ivy League leaders of the world.”
“Amen to that.” Servaas scowls at his empty glass and waits for a refill before continuing. “It serves no purpose to have a pretty face and a wall full of diplomas. If you don’t have compassion, you’re a dictator.”
“There’s something else we have to remember,” Gertruida has that look again. “While everybody’s going to try to outdo the others with their eulogies, there’s a woman who’s going to miss him. Miss him terribly much. I feel for her.”
Boggel lifts an eyebrow. “Winnie? Graca?”
He gets a shake of the head. “Zelda, Boggel, Zelda la Grange. His private secretary. The power behind the throne, in some ways.”
Once again, Gertruida has the facts. She tells them of the young girl who landed a job as a typist in the president’s office. An Afrikaner girl. Later secretary to the first democratically elected president. White young woman. Older black diplomat. Initial inexperience combined with wisdom. Nationalist background slotting into the ANC. “It’s the stuff of fairytales,” Gertruida reminds them.
Ms la Grange is a fixer, Gertruida says. “She gets things done.” When Madiba quit being the president, he asked her to stay on as his personal assistant. She organised, accompanied, worked with Madiba right till the end. Travelled along on more than 200 overseas visits. Met people, organised even more meetings than she’ll ever remember. Met more people. Important people. Kings and presidents and rock bands and common people. “Where he went, she went. They were a team.”
“And now…?” Precilla lets it hang in the air.
“Oh she’ll manage. She’s a fixer, remember? But I guess she’ll miss the hectic life she had before. Or maybe she’ll welcome the change. But a bit of her died with Madiba, I’m sure. You cannot work with one of history’s greats for so long, and then just walk away as if nothing happened.”
Boggel raises a glass in a silent toast. Yes, so many tears will be shed. People will talk and write and televise – and the world will mourn. A few individuals will make derogatory remarks – an inevitability in the cynical, superficial world we live in. And yes, he will be missed in the turbulent times we live in, for somehow he had – even when he was critically ill – a reassuring and stabilising influence on the people who lived in his shadow.
But who will remember the woman who dedicated her life to serve Madiba? She never forced her way into the limelight, quite content just to smooth the way for her boss to do what he did best: building bridges.
That’s why Boggel replaced the well-known rugby-jersey-photo of Nelson Mandela next to the till with another picture. The old man, waving at the global crowd, saying goodbye for the last time. And at his side, a vivacious young lady with a smile to equal his. She, too, is saying goodbye – in a way. Not only to her boss, but to the bustle that made him instantly recognisable in almost every home in the world.
“Let’s raise a glass to a brave, competent woman. And when we say our sad goodbyes to the late president, let us spare a thought for everybody that helped and supported him.”
“…and his family,” Precilla adds. “Once Madiba brought us all together with hope. Now let us unite again by sharing the family’s grief. This is not a time to whittle away at what happened in the past – if anything, we should build bridges, just like he did.”
“And she did,” Fanny smiles sadly as she runs a finger over the photograph. “I think we should write her a letter, or something. Maybe Oudoom should write it, telling her we appreciate her work…and loss.”
“Or we can simply tell her ourselves?”
And that’s what they’re doing…