Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk To Freedom, Robben Island, John Mountford, Kill Mandela


When a plant in your garden dies, you pull it up and throw it onto the compost heap to rot.

Not Nelson Mandela.

When his beloved Robben Island tomato plant withered and died despite his best efforts to save it, he says:

‘I removed the roots from the soil, washed them and buried them in the corner of the garden.’

Something deep inside of me stirred as I read these words. I could see the heartbroken Mandela, probably with tears in his eyes as there were in mine, tenderly laying his dead plant to rest. He loved that living plant, and when it died he afforded it the dignity of a proper burial according to his custom.

This one sentence alone in ‘A Long Walk To Freedom’ told me more about Mandela than the entire 700 pages did. Have you ever heard of someone burying their deceased plant? I never had until I read this, and I’m sure I never will again.

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, A Long Walk To Freedom, john Mountford, Kill Mandela



I believe there are two things that contributed to his love for that tomato plant:

1) Nature

Mandela loved nature. He tells us that he was grateful to do hard labour in the lime quarry each day because the march there and back gave him the opportunity to:

‘… see the grass and trees, to observe the birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing from the sea…and smell the eucalyptus blossoms. Although some of the men regarded the march as drudgery, I never did.’

Even in the confined space of the prison courtyard he was able to feel that:

‘… every living thing there, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass seemed to smile and shine in the sun.’

2) Regret

Throughout ‘ALWTF’ Mandela repeatedly refers to his anguish at having not been able to look after those that he loved as he should have – as a son, a husband and a father. This was his greatest regret in having followed the path that he did.

I believe that tending to his little patch of garden, and nurturing his tomato plant, was a substitute for this loss. In this way Mandela was able to care for something living that depended upon him, and when it died he was able to bury it with all the love that he was deprived of when his son and mother died in his absence.

Why do you think Mandela loved that tomato plant so?


A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, John Mountford, Kill Mandela

I can forgive the error of injustice, but I cannot forgive the error of inhumanity.

Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island was the result of the first type of error; his treatment in prison was the consequence of the second. Was it not enough that he had been deprived of ‘life and liberty’ indefinitely? Why was he then further subjected to inhumane acts of petty cruelty?

This, to my mind, is what made apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’: not that it was an ignorant and unjust political system; but because, driven into it, were the nails of cruelty and inhumanity.

Once on Robben Island, isolated, vulnerable and no possible threat to the authorities, surely Mandela and his fellow prisoners could have been treated with humanity? Apparently not – and here is where the roots of apartheid are exposed: not as a doctrine that says I disagree with your way of thinking, but as a belief that says I regard you as less of a human being than myself.


These are some of the cruelties inflicted on Mandela while on Robben Island that I cannot forgive:

Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk To Freedom, John Mountford, Robben Island, Kill Mandela


Mandela, and other blacks, were forced to wear short trousers. They were not deemed human enough to wear long trousers like their fellow Indian and coloured inmates.


Mandela was allowed one visitor, and one letter, every six months. And then at times, after waiting six long months for the single letter, he was told without any explanation: ‘we have a letter for you, but we cannot give it to you’. The letters he did receive were censored so heavily that they were in tatters by the time he received them.

After Winnie’s first visit, she was not allowed to visit again for two years.


These may seem like an unnecessary luxury for a prisoner, but for those working in the lime quarry, as did Mandela, they were a medical necessity. It took three years of streaming, squinting eyes all day in the quarry before, at the insistence of a doctor, they were allowed sunglasses. Even then they had to pay for the glasses themselves.


As if one visit every six months by his wife was not punishment enough, the authorities placed every obstacle they could in the way of those visits:

  • She sometimes received only a days warning, making travel arrangements from Johannesburg, some 2000kms distant, difficult.
  • She was forced to fly, knowing how little money she had.
  • As a banned person Winnie had to apply for a special permit to visit Nelson. Sometimes the authorities would deliberately delay the issuing of a permit until after the plane had departed.
  • Visits were non-contact, and only for 30 minutes through a small square of thick, smudged glass with a few small holes drilled into it.
  • Winnie and her family were persecuted constantly by the police.
  • In an attempt to make his life even more miserable, the warders placed press clippings of Winnie’s tribulations on Mandela’s bed for him to discover upon return from a long, hard day at the quarry.


Mandela’s mother died while he was on Robben Island. As her eldest child and only son, it was his responsibility to bury her. His request to attend to this, the most important of African traditional family duties, was flatly turned down.

Less than a year later Mandela’s first and eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a car crash. Again, his request to attend to his responsibilities at this funeral were denied.

Mandela, speaking of the cumulative effect of both incidents of inhumanity said: ‘I do not have words to express the sorrow, or the loss I felt. It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.’


How do you feel about Mandela’s treatment in prison? Was it the normal treatment one would expect in a harsh prison environment, or the deliberate decision to add to his suffering through petty acts of cruelty?

Could you forgive it? Should he have?


US president Barack Obama peers out from Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben island. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)
US president Barack Obama peers out from Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben island. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)


President Barack Obama is in South Africa, his first time as US president. His visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island was deeply symbolic, or so he thought.

However, I wonder, if Mandela were well enough to have accompanied Obama on the trip, whether he wouldn’t have gently pointed out the irony of the situation to the US president: the USA continues to hold suspected ‘terrorists’ without trial in Guantanamo Bay cells and
Mandela himself was unjustly imprisoned as a ‘terrorist’ by the Apartheid government of South Africa. There doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the two governments when it comes to dealing with those who oppose their policies. Might is always right; morality is an optional extra, if convenient.