by Alison Flood)
Zelda la Grange, Nelson Mandela's private secretary and "honorary granddaughter", is to publish a memoir of how she "had her life and everything she once believed in transformed by the greatest man of her time".
The book, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, has just been acquired by Penguin and will be published around the world on 19 June. It's a hot property at this week's London Book Fair, where international rights are selling fast – agent Jonny Geller accepted an offer from France this weekend. It will tell the story of la Grange's life, from how she grew up in South Africa as a white Afrikaner who supported the rules of segregation, to how, a few years after the end of apartheid, she would become Mandela's assistant.
Editor Helen Conford said that it was "a book that will touch your life and make you believe that every one of us, no matter who we are or what we have done, has the power to change. It has brought tears to the eyes of everyone who has read it. It shines with honesty and love. The lessons Nelson Mandela gave her as he renewed his country offer hope to everyone."
Geller said Good Morning, Mr Mandela, which la Grange is writing herself, was "a very genuine and heartfelt book that I think will make people see Madiba as a man in a different light".
"She really was completely devoted to the job," he added. "As people from Bono to Bill Clinton will testify, she was the gateway to the man, and that was a 24-hour job. But in the last year, she started to think that all her extraordinary experiences were worth putting down. [And] she's a natural writer."
La Grange told the Guardian in 2008 of how, after she had become a typist on Mandela's staff, she first met the president. "I knew that he was a friendly man. I had seen him greeting other people, but I had never had any encounters with him. But then I ran into him, as I say, by accident and he started speaking Afrikaans to me, which I didn't understand immediately because the last thing I expected was for him to speak in my own language to me. His Afrikaans was perfect but I was in such a state that I didn't understand what he was saying. I was shivering."
She shivered, she said, "because I was scared of him, not knowing what to expect of him, whether he was going to dismiss me, humiliate me ... and instantly it was that feeling of guilt that all Afrikaners carry with them ... He was 75 at the time, and you could see he was old and the thing that immediately crosses your mind is, 'I sent this man to jail.' My people sent this man to jail! I was part of this even though I couldn't vote. I was part of this, of taking from a person like him his whole life away. And then I started crying. And then he shook my hand, and he held my hand."
She was shedding tears, she said, but Mandela "just held my hand and he continued to speak to me, still holding my hand, and then when he saw I was still so emotional, he put his other hand on my shoulder and said, 'No, no, no ... this is not necessary, you're overreacting a bit.' I settled down, maybe smiled at that, and then he started asking me questions. Where had I grown up? What my parents did? We ended up talking for about five minutes. But it wasn't special treatment he was giving me. He would talk to all members of the staff, black and white, in the same way when he met them, asking them about their backgrounds, their families."
She went on to take on more and more duties for Mandela – the "great strategist ... knew it was important at that time to show the world we were going to embrace all cultures, we were going to have white people working with us" – going on to become his private secretary, at his side for 16 years. When he died, she released a statement saying that: "As sad as it makes me that I will never walk into a room again and see his generous, infectious smile or hear him say, 'Oh Zeldina, you are here,' I have come to terms with the fact that Madiba's legacy is not dependent on his presence," adding: "Thank you for believing in me, Khulu, making me a better person, a better South African."
La Grange will donate a percentage of royalties from the book to the Nelson Mandela Foundation "to protect and further the legacy of its founder".