The closest I ever came to feeling the presence of Nelson Mandela was when on a teaching research trip I toured the Robben Island prison where Mandela spent 18 years. I saw the barren quarry where he and his fellow political prisoners were forced to break rocks with pickaxes. I saw the cramped cell with bucket toilet and bed covered by a gray blanket where Mandela kept himself strong doing daily pushups. The authorities offered to upgrade his conditions because of his public status, but he refused without his comrades receiving the same improvement.
I spent the night on Robben Island thinking about what Mandela and other political prisoners thought about as they went to bed each night. I thought about the legend that in the nighttime silence, ten years after the Robben Island prison was shut down, one could still hear echoes of prisoners being tortured. The next morning I walked down to the shore and found a smooth stone slightly larger than my palm. When I returned four miles by boat to Cape town I painted the following poem on the stone with liquid paper (tellingly known as white out in colloquial usage). It recently appeared in The New Haven Review.
From the Soil
On the prison rooftop Mandela
grew tomatoes to feed every man,
the one who bled from the neck,
tightened the rope,
cleaned shit and memory
the next morning.
One flesh digests the seeds.
I had read somewhere that prison authorities granted Mandela the privilege of tending a tiny tomato plot in his later years and that he gave tomatoes to the guards and the prison kitchen. What would the man who locked Mandela’s cell at night and the one who watched him bend over and split rocks during the day think when eating the flesh of a tomato?
Long before being released and becoming president, Mandela was cultivating the new South Africa, a South Africa whose new flag blended the colors of the traditional banner that symbolized white supremacy with the black, green and gold of the ANC, the South Africa that adopted 12 indigenous tongues as national languages in addition to English and Afrikaans. When he placed a tomato in the palm of the prison guard, the one who might have prodded a prisoner asleep on the cement without a sheet or beaten him unconscious in a windowless basement, Mandela was planting the seed of the unprecedented process of national reconciliation that would ultimately save the country from racial implosion. Whatever the vast divisions, hatred and fabric of violence, Mandela allowed everyone to eat of the same fruit.