While Mandela's away, garden designers play

Thanks to a BBC-TV crew, a garden sprouted around the ex-president's

When Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, returned to Qunu, his home village in Eastern Cape province, shortly before Christmas, a surprise awaited him: a secret garden.

Even more startling for the statesman who gave up power in June was learning how, in his brief absence, flower beds, shrubs, and a stream had sprouted on the bare, sun-parched terrain around his house.

A BBC television team from England, which specializes in sneaking into properties while their owners are away and transforming dull patches of ground into glorious splashes of color, had done the trick.

Conspiring with Mr. Mandela's wife, Graca, the Ground Force team had given the statesman's garden a makeover while he was on a three-day trip to New York. The resulting program will be broadcast in Britain on Jan. 2.

When he returned to Qunu and saw what the team had achieved, Mandela was delighted. Grinning broadly, he turned to his wife and said, "We're not supposed to have any secrets."

Gardens have a special significance for Mandela. During his 27 years as a political prisoner on Robben Island in the apartheid era, his jailers allowed him to tend a small vegetable garden in the prison yard. The vegetables the plot produced were given to fellow inmates.

In his memoirs, Mandela wrote: "The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom. I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, sows seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the result." During the program, viewers will see the prison garden Mandela created.

For TV presenter Alan Titchmarsh, who designed the Qunu garden and describes the ex-president as "one of the world's most inspirational figures," the task was "a bit like planning a battle campaign." It took six months for the BBC to make the arrangements. On hand to help was Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela's closest friends and himself a former political prisoner.

"We had to work through Mrs. Mandela and Mr. Kathrada and find out what kind of plants he liked. Also we had to keep Mr. Mandela's security detail in the picture, and make sure the man himself didn't know what we were hatching," says executive producer Carol Haslam.

"We were all incredibly excited and a bit nervous about the transformation," Mr. Titchmarsh says. "Pulling it off is a real once in-a-lifetime moment for everyone."

Before the Ground Force team arrived, the area around the newly built Mandela retirement home was bare turf. Plant expert Titchmarsh says creating a garden for the South African climate was an enormous challenge.

"I'd never done any gardening overseas before, so we had to work very hard researching what could survive in the extremes of weather you get where the Mandelas have chosen to retire."

In the Eastern Cape, prolonged dry spells are followed by torrential rain, and the soil becomes baked hard. Titchmarsh and his colleagues took local advice in choosing a variety of succulents and shrubs.

"Because water is scarce in the area, we made a narrow watercourse with palms in pots to flank it," Titchmarsh says. "Then we put a slate patio underneath an arbor covered in climbers to create shade." The emphasis was on seclusion and contemplation.

In one area of the garden, the program makers created a focal point from an ancient millstone Mandela's mother used to grind corn. The Ground Force team also designed and built a pergola.

As they were leaving, Titchmarsh says: "Rather poignantly, [Mandela] said he just hoped that he would have enough time to enjoy it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.