Durban, “For me, success is all about going back to the basics. No matter how important you become, no matter how wealthy you become, (don’t forget) the basics that Madiba showed us every day. As commoners, we could relate to him because, what he showed us every day were things we could aspire to be.”
This was just one of many observations that former private secretary to Nelson Mandela, Zelda la Grange, shared with members of the Durban branch of the Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) which hosted its premier Entrepreneur Event of 2019 at the Oyster Box Hotel on 20 February.
La Grange, who published the book Good Morning, Mr Mandela, to chronicle her experiences at the side of South Africa’s most revered statesman, noted that “the power of sharing” would make for a powerful organisation.
Now a sought after motivational speaker, La Grange sees herself as a change agent. As she shares her story of how Mandela both challenged and transformed her, she inspires her listeners to interrogate key issues such as discipline, leadership, respect, integrity, honesty and transparency.
She described Mandela as politician firstly and then as a strategist, statesman, an icon, a father figure and more.
“Every day, Madiba was disciplined, was honest, showed his integrity and respected people. This is why we all adored him so much. He was such an authentic person. He decided that if he could just touch one person a day, he could change the world,” she explained.
EO, is the only global network exclusively for entrepreneurs, is active in 54 countries. Members are founders, co-founders, owners or controlling shareholders of businesses making more than US$1 million in annual revenue and founders of businesses with annual revenue that exceeds $1 million.
Seeing itself as a catalyst to enable entrepreneurs to grow and learn from each other, EO aims to enrich members’ lives through dynamic peer-to-peer learning, once in a lifetime experiences and connections to experts. Its core values include leaving a legacy and trust and respect – values which were personified by Mandela.
La Grange, who grew up in a typical, prejudiced Afrikaner family where politics was not discussed, actually began working in Mandela’s office quite by chance at the age of just 23.
Acknowledging that she was naïve and “spectacularly ill equipped for the job”, she believed that she would never meet the president and would simply “just disappear and do a job.”
But her boss had other ideas. “Two weeks into the job I (went to) deliver something and this crowd of people came walking out. … I saw him and the first thing that struck me was the kindness in his eyes and the sincerity of his smile. I didn’t know what to do… He put his hand out and stood waiting for me to reciprocate. He held my hand in a firm grip throughout the conversation. He asked me something and there was a pause and I realised I had to answer him, but I didn’t hear what he had said. So I said excuse me. In Afrikaans, he asked me my name and where I was from. I heard him say, when you speak to a man it goes to his head, but when you speak to man in his language it goes to his heart. Walking away from that meeting that day, I decided that I needed to learn about my country so, slowly, I started reading and obtaining guidance from the wonderful people around me,” she recalled.
But working for Mandela wasn’t easy. “He was a slave driver. He would call at 2am when he remembered something… I didn’t care what task they gave me… It was really about commitment, dedication and loyalty – and, being entrepreneurs, you can relate to the fact that it is only hard work that gets you to the top. I was the only one who answered the phone at 2am – I went the extra mile.”
She mentioned three key lessons that she had learnt during her 19-year career with Mandela – punctuality and discipline were a mark of respect for others, the need to respect everyone irrespective of their background, ideology and religion and the importance of integrity, honesty and ethics.
Most of all, la Grange pointed out that Madiba viewed himself as a simple person like everyone else. She said it was up to us to us to keep his legacy alive.
Responding to la Grange’s story, Mark Essey, an EO member and managing director of Debt-IN observed: “For me, the message was one of sticking to your principles and not being afraid to go against the consensus. It is no use moaning about what others are doing if I am not prepared to sort out my own stuff first.”
EO member, Clinton Holcroft, managing director of Serco added: “What I found inspirational was how, as a leader, Madiba strove to live by his values and principles. He went out of his way to make the people feel valued and welcome. He portrayed servant leadership at its best and is an example to us all to make the effort to see things from each other’s perspectives.”
Founder of ProAppointments and EO member, Cindy Norcott, concluded: “I was reminded how easy it is for us to apply the Madiba magic in small, seemingly insignificant ways daily. Even small gestures such as a smile, a sincere compliment, an acknowledgement to someone doing a menial job or a random act of kindness go a long way. One of EO’s values is leaving a legacy and I believe that we, as entrepreneurs, have a huge responsibility to make a difference. “