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.

Neal J. Menschel/The Christian Science Monitor/file
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.'

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.

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.

We lived in South Africa for 11 years. I watched Mandela up close on many occasions, sparred with him in press conferences, walked through the prisons that held him, met many of his comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle, and passed his house often on one of my daily jogging routes. His hands were as big as boxing gloves, his handshake disarmingly gentle. He was affable, chummy, cantankerous, stubborn, politely resolute, practical, and incorrigibly flirtatious.

Mandela waged the struggle against apartheid in patient increments, always careful to distinguish between the oppressive political system he opposed and the people who served it. 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.

He personified the ideals of reconciliation that helped his people reexamine their painful past, and his presence reassured them as they embraced an uncertain future. Around kitchen tables and water coolers, they expressed a hope that as long as Mandela was around, the mischief that beset so many African countries might not dash their new beginning.

It was difficult at times to tell whether his success in the South Africa struggle made Mandela prone to overreach. He was not careful in whom he called friends, nor did he regard any international dispute immune from his influence. He led Fidel Castro on a personal tour of Soweto, the vast black township south of Johannesburg that incubated the anti-apartheid struggle; embraced Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi; offered his energies to the peace processes in Northern Ireland as well as across Africa, and, with his arm around Yasser Arafat, pledged his support for Palestinian statehood.

But what mattered most to Mandela was restoring dignity to Africa and its people. He chastised his fellow African leaders for corruption and human rights violations. On a continent reputed for seemingly intractable wars and countless coups, he set a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power from president to president. He leveraged international sport to legitimize Africa’s place in the global community.

A Rwandan friend wrote a few years ago to say he’d named his first-born son Obama. “That’s how much I think of the guy,” he said. I understood. Ten years earlier we named our first child, who was born in South Africa, after Mandela. That’s how much we thought of the guy.

Kurt Shillinger, former Africa correspondent for The Boston Globe, lived in South Africa from 1997 to 2008.

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