Madiba’s evergreen fingers
As a prisoner, Mandela found a source of pleasure and a feeling of freedom in gardening
FROM a vegetable patch created on Robben Island in the 1970s, to a spectacular red king protea in the 2000s, Nelson Mandela’s long association with vegetables and flowers reminds everyone of our enduring and important link to plants.
Even before his Robben Island days, “Mandela had acquired some experience of gardening from both his time at Clarkesbury Institute and tending the garden at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia” – his alias David Motsamayi “masked as a gardener”, writes Oxford University Professor Elleke Boehmer in her book, Nelson Mandela, A Brief Insight (Sterling Publishers, 2008).
Helping in Reverend Cecil Harris’s garden at Clarkesbury, a Wesleyan missionary school where Mandela attended school in Tembuland, “planted in me a lifelong love of growing vegetables”, recalled Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Towards the mid-1970s, Mandela and his MK commander Laloo Chiba were given permission to garden a strip of open ground at the far end of the Robben Island prison yard, at right angles to the Section B Corridor.
“Mandela began to measure beds and weigh and grind compost,” writes Boehmer.
“The garden was to be productive, not merely decorative: it would grow nutritious vegetables for the prisoners”.
Prison warders supplied seeds, and soon the garden was a full-scale operation.
“By late 1975, Mandela, Chiba and their helpers had raised 2 000 chilies, 1 000 tomatoes, and two watermelons, as well as peppers and cucumbers,” recalled Boehmer.
“A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control,” added Mandela in his autobiography. “To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom,” he noted.
Mandela’s mode of gardening was soon to take the form of “container food gardening”.
After 18 years on Robben Island, Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982.
“The shift to the cells on the concrete roof of Pollsmoor Prison interrupted, but did not curtail Mandela’s gardening activities,” writes Boehmer. “Prisoner D220/82 (as 466/64 had now become) undertook to relieve the rooftop’s gray monotony by creating a ‘garden in the sky’, using 16 44-gallon oil drums sawn in half, into which he poured soil carted from the prison’s own market garden.
“Once again, Mandela obsessively watched over the development of the eventual 900 plants, helped by his Rivonia colleagues. Warders, including the prison commander, supplied seeds and assisted with erecting hessian barriers against the wind,” Boehmer writes.
Pollsmoor prison warder James Gregory recalled in his autobiography: “Eventually, at the height of the growing season, there was a huge variety of plants in the vegetable section: eggplants, cabbage, beans, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, onions, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes of a number of varieties… and many types of spices.”
By the time Mandela left Pollsmoor, he had created a “far grander” garden than the one developed at Robben Island.
Moved to the deputy governor’s cottage at Victor Verster in 1988, Mandela was given a garden for his sole use during the final two years of his imprisonment. The garden’s perimeter wall was raised to screen his activities, and on the day of his release (February 2, 1990) he showed his family and friends the vegetables and flowers that he had cultivated, before taking his famous walk to freedom.
In the past few decades, hundreds of parks across the world have been named in Nelson Mandela’s honour, and in 1980, a three-hectare Nelson Mandela Forest was planted up with 2 400 trees and 120 indigenous species alongside his home at Qunu.
Mandela became a patron of the South African Floral Union in 1995, and a number of individual plants have been named in his honour:
Strelitzia reginae Mandela’s Gold: In 1996, the National Botanical Institute (now South African National Biodiversity Institute) renamed a rare and spectacular yellow form of Strelitzia reginae in honour of President Nelson Mandela.
First released in 1994 as “Kirstenbosch Gold”, the plant was identified during the 1970s by Kirstenbosch curator John Winter. Using a motherstock of seven yellow-flowering plants in the nursery, he launched a 20-year programme to carefully select and hand-pollinate enough stock to release the yellow strelitzia to gardeners. Today, Mandela’s Gold is to still found in most large garden centres.
Rosa “Madiba”: In 1996, the “Madiba” rose was released by Ludwig’s Roses as a tribute to former President Mandela. As a fragrant hybrid tea rose, “Madiba” grows to a height of 1.5 to 1.8m, with long-pointed buds of a deep maroonpink. As the rose further develops, the colours change to a deep lilac and eventually beige as the flower fades. It can be used as a cut-flower or bedding rose.
Red king protea – Protea cyneroides 'Madiba”: In the mid2000s, a striking, deep red king protea cultivar was named Madiba. Flowering from August to October, the Madiba king protea has a mature plant size of 1m x 1m, is moderately tolerant to heavy soils, but does best in sandy soils and full sun.
Orchid “Paravanda Nelson Mandela”: This orchid was named to honour Nelson Mandela on his visit to the Singapore National Orchid Garden on March 5, 1997.
Madiba has often spoken the words of a popular Sotho saying, Moaha moriti ha adule, plant trees for others.
This weekend, honour the work of Nelson Mandela by planting something in your garden.
IN THE GARDEN: Keith Kirsten interviews then-President Nelson Mandela at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the official residence of the president of South Africa in Bryntirion, Pretoria.
NAMESAKE: Orchid ‘Paravanda Nelson Mandela’ was named on his visit to the Singapore National Orchid Garden on March 5, 1997.
MANDELA MAGIC: In 1996 Kirstenbosch re-named a rare yellow Strelitzia reginae after Mandela.
KINGMAKER: In the mid-2000s, a striking, deep red king protea cultivar was named ‘Madiba’.
SMALL PLEASURES: Nelson Mandela recalled his pleasure at watching tomatoes turn red.