Madiba’s ever­green fin­gers

As a pris­oner, Man­dela found a source of plea­sure and a feel­ing of freedom in gar­den­ing

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.

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