Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A Garden with a Secret

After visiting Robben Island off Cape Town, South Africa in late October, I have felt daunted about how to write anything fresh about my experience as so much has been written about the end of apartheid and the election of political dissident Nelson Mandela to the presidency of the nation after 27 years as a political prisoner.  I’ve read a biography and autobiography of the leader as well as having seen the documentary film about his life. 
At least I can urge you to read the biography by Anthony Sampson or the autobiography and see The Life and Times of Nelson Mandela.  But here’s my own personal take, which centers around a garden.
When Mandela arrived at Robben Island he thought it resembled a resort more than a prison.  Arriving at the same dock, I could view  Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain, the spectacular backdrop for the port, which in early morning are covered with a mist pouring over the mesa like a tablecloth.   But of course the beauty is only from the boat as one leaves the port.
My guide on Robben Island  was  Tom Mobassi, who  told us that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) when he was 15 and was arrested when he was 19 after attacking a defense installation.  He was part of the “new” ANC which had armed itself against white South Africa but was committed to destroying property, not people.  He was sent to jail for 20-plus years but was released in 1991 when he was 28. 
He also arrived in the boat from Cape Town.
Once inside the prison gates, the beauty of the outer world (except for the blue sky) is shut out.  Only concrete and bars.  Mandela quickly learned how the system inside could continue and exacerbate the dehumanization  of the inmates.  Yet from the outside, he found ways to resist this dehumanization and to teach his fellow prisoners how to resist.

Mandela's Cell
For example, from the outset, Mandela refused to wear the short pants assigned the Blacks (while “coloreds” or those of Asian and mixed heritage were allowed to wear slacks).  Little by little, over the years, his influence even among his captors increased. 
For Mombassi, things were even worse.  He was tortured:  his arms were tied behind him, a rag stuffed in his mouth, a sock over his head while electric shock was applied to his body.  He soiled himself and threw up.  His torture was not unusual for prisoners, their “initiation” into the prison.
 Because of his infamy and influence, Mandela was housed separately from other prisoners.  But one 30 x 30 cell housed at least a hundred prisoners who lay on the floor.  After receiving complaints from the family, South African legislator Helen Sussman insisted that beds be installed; some conditions changed. 
When doctors visited – at the urging of the Red Cross – they would instruct prisoners to breathe deeply without ever placing the stethoscopes to their ears.  All correspondence was censored and only letters coming into the prison had offending remarks redacted by using scissors to remove  whole portions of content– the prisoners referred to them as “window letters”.
Mandiba's Garden
After many years, Mandela asked for and was allowed to garden a small plot in the corner of a concrete exercise yard where he could finally experience something of the natural world even behind the walls of the prison.  Mandela’s garden was public and yet in one way it also was a secret garden. 
During the years there, the prisoners developed a clandestine university: 67 percent of the prisoners couldn’t read or write and so literacy motto became “each one, teach one.”  They studied at night in the bathrooms where the only lights were on after dark; ; they monitored the intercom system, blocking its listening devices and watching out for guards.   were out and only the bathroom lights were left on.  Mombassi told us that the future minister of justice studied in such a bathroom. 
By 1990 – after Mandela had been moved to another facility -- the prisoners had not received their daily food and they were locked down at 6 pm.  Suspecting that Mandela was about to be set free, they began joyously singing freedom songs and sharing their of  becoming policemen returning to arrest their jailers.  Mombassi said there were in prison “many Mandelas.”
But back to Mandela’s garden – which still stands.  While imprisoned there, the leader had started secretly writing his autobiography.  After he completed several pages, he  buried them in his garden.  Only after his freedom did he recapture and finally publish the autobiography.
In full view, Mandela’s garden turned out to be a “secret” garden after all.

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