Skip to main content

Nelson Mandela holds a copy of his autobiography Wednesday, December 14, 1994 in Johannesburg.Denis Farrell/The Associated Press

A white woman who worked as a personal assistant to Nelson Mandela has stirred unease about race relations in South Africa after criticizing the current president for allegedly making anti-white remarks.

Zelda la Grange has since apologized for her Twitter comments, which triggered accusations that she was herself a racist steeped in the ideology of white minority rule. Apartheid ended when Mandela, who died in 2013 at the age of 95, became South Africa's first black president in 1994.

La Grange had accused President Jacob Zuma of making business conditions difficult for white investors and making it clear that whites "are not wanted or needed in South Africa."

On her Twitter account, la Grange also referred to a reported 2012 remark by Zuma that having a pet is part of "white culture" and that people should focus instead on family welfare. She joked that she would ask French President Francois Hollande if he would accept her as a citizen because South Africa's ruling party "doesn't want us."

She also criticized Zuma for a reported comment this month that South Africa's troubles began with the 1652 arrival of Dutch colonizer Jan van Riebeeck at what became Cape Town. And la Grange expressed frustration with criticism of F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid era who joined Mandela in negotiating a power transfer for which both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. South African ruling party figures have objected to plans to name a Cape Town boulevard after de Klerk, saying he was an enforcer of white racist rule.

La Grange's remarks ignited a backlash on Twitter, with some people accusing her of stoking racial tension by seizing on comments by Zuma that should have been ignored. Zuma, who was re-elected last year, has periodically talked about racial reconciliation though his reputation has been hit by governance concerns, including a scandal over state spending at his private home.

La Grange, who wrote a well-received book about Mandela that was published after his death, eventually backed away from her remarks on social media. On Saturday, she wrote: "On any day our democracy is better than apartheid, it's the only way and I'll defend it," and noted that she had the right to criticize.

For some, the relationship between Mandela and his former aide from the Afrikaner minority was one of the most visible symbols of hope for racial reconciliation. After Mandela died, la Grange said in a tribute that the anti-apartheid leader's legacy had inspired unity in South Africa, "particularly how we relate to one another."