A Prisoner in the garden – Nelson Mandela

A Prisoner in the garden – Nelson Mandela

In 1977 the South African prison authorities allowed a number of journalists to visit the notorious Robben Island. The intention was to persuade the outside world that the conditions there were not as bad as widely believed. On their tour of the island the journalists encountered a tall, thin man dressed neatly in prison clothes and leaning on a spade. The expression on his face was one of intense hostility, and his bearing was more that of prince than prisoner. The man was Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year of incarceration on Robben Island.  Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his prison sentence confined to Robben Island as a political prisoner. In his own words –

“In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”

We all know gardening is a great escape. Nelson Mandela used it as one for 27 years in prison:

“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 taste of freedom.”

Every urban gardener can relate a little to this one:

“The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners, but that was not the case at Pollsmoor, where I cultivated a garden that became one of my happiest diversions. It was my way of escaping from the monolithic concrete world that surrounded us. Within a few weeks of surveying all the empty space we had on the building’s roof and how it was bathed the whole day, I decided to start a garden and received permission to do so from the commanding officer.”

Robben Island had an open yard at the top of the prison, there was a vegetable patch and table tennis. Although fond of table tennis, when Mandela was gardening he was on another planet. He was proud of his garden and would often talk to it in the mornings. He would grow brinjals, tomatoes, onions and spinach, which, every Friday, the wardens would combine with meat to make a stew. He would always share his stew with the wardens.”

Today the photograph, captioned ‘A Prisoner Working in the Garden’ by the prison authorities, forms the centrepiece of the Mandela Prison Archive, which when viewed as a whole constitutes a living record of Mandela’s 27 years in prison. Together they form an extraordinary picture of prison life but, even more remarkably, of a man who, together with his close comrades, never gave up the fight for freedom and the vision of a liberated country.

“Let your greatness bloom” – Nelson Mandela


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