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Nelson Mandela: prisoner, president...gardener?

Nelson Mandela and his extraordinary life will enrich the great moral debates on war and peace for generations to come. For the moment, however, at the news of his death, I am thinking about tomatoes – in my garden in South Africa and in Mandela's prison garden.

By Kurt Shillinger / December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela speaks to the press in Lusaka, Zambia, about a month after his release from prison Feb. 11, 1990. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes of Mandela: 'Pressing his wardens for garden pots was one of his many smaller battles behind bars to compel the apartheid regime to acknowledge the dignity of its political prisoners. Yet he gladly graced his wardens’ tables with the vegetables he grew.'

Neal J. Menschel/The Christian Science Monitor/file

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St. Louis

His middle name loosely translated means "troublemaker." Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a petty thief, a pioneering lawyer, a political upstart, a guerrilla commander, a "terrorist" to his foes, a prisoner, and the peacemaker who broke the chains of apartheid in South Africa and became its first black president. The world mourns his death, but his extraordinary life will enrich the world’s great moral debates on war and peace for generations to come.

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As reports of Mandela's declining health continued over the past few months, I began thinking of another great lesson Mandela taught me – about tomatoes.

My wife and I moved to South Africa in the southern autumn of 1997. Nelson Mandela was three years into his one and only five-year term as president. The country was taut with contradictory emotions: relief and uncertainty, reconciliation and resentment, suspicion and forgiveness. Our arrival was met with frequent expressions of incredulity. White people didn’t move to South Africa, they were lining up to leave.

We rented a modest house in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg surrounded by high stucco walls. When spring came, we filled the flower beds in the back garden with poppies, sweet peas, and roses. Sunlight baked that little garden outside my office window for hours each day. I daydreamed about rows of thriving vegetable plants. We doubted our landlords would let us dig up the lawn, even though they had left for Australia and would never return, but it seemed a shame not to do more with all that sunlight.

It was about then that I came across a passage in Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that not only solved my garden problem but also illustrated how he waged and won the struggle against apartheid.

After 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela and his colleagues were transferred to a prison on the mainland outside Cape Town. Pollsmoor was a concrete monolith. The political prisoners, however, had had a small garden in their cell block courtyard on the island, and Mandela was determined to have one again in his new circumstances.

 “Within a few weeks of surveying all the empty space we had on the building’s roof and how it was bathed in sun the whole day, I decided to start a garden and received permission,” Mandela recalled. “I requested that the prison service supply me with sixteen 44-gallon oil drums that I had them slice in half. The authorities then filled each half with rich, moist soil, creating in effect thirty-two giant flowerpots.

“I grew onions, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, and much more. At its height I had a small farm with nearly nine hundred plants.”

Not long after I read this our brick patio was covered with big green plastic pots and dozens of tomato seedlings.

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