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A Prisoner in the Garden

Preface, Introduction and  Bibliography of Theatrum Botanicum publication
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Introduction: “A Prisoner in the Garden”
Uriel Orlow and Shela Sheikh


A Prisoner in the Garden, courtesy The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

In 1977, in his thirteenth year of incarceration in Robben Island prison, a photograph appeared in the global press of Nelson Mandela, dressed in prison clothing, leaning on a spade. This image, which appears on the dust jacket of this volume, had been taken on 25 April, during a visit by local and overseas press organized by the South African Prison Authorities. The image was captioned “A Prisoner Working in the Garden” by the authorities.[1] Shortly thereafter, Mandela and 28 other co-signatories wrote a letter (the first page of which is also reproduced on the dust jacket) addressed to the Single Cells Section of the prison, protesting against the purpose for and manner in which the visit was organized and conducted. In the letter, they complain of the deliberate violation of the prisoners’ right to privacy by taking their photographs without permission, and of the specification by the Minister of Prisons that the visit only occur on the condition that no communication whatsoever take place between the press and prisoners.[2]

Beyond this protest against the self-representation denied to them, the letter challenged the manner in which the press visit was organized so as to “white-wash the Prison Department; pacify public criticism of the Department here and abroad; and counteract any adverse publicity that might arise in the future.” Moreover, this representational white-washing was slyly enacted precisely through a form of what one might nowadays call “green-washing”; as the prisoners relate in the letter, “on that particular day, the span from our Section was given the special work of ‘gardening’ instead of pulling out bamboo from the sea as we normally do when we go to work.”[3] As such, the image was used to cleanse the reality of the hard labor and lack of rights that the prisoners endured,[4] and the image of gardening in particular was fully capitalized upon. As the letter attests, prisoners and authorities alike were all too aware of the potential use of this image and of this seemingly leisurely, therapeutic, and apolitical activity.

But if the letter protests the lack of agency granted the prisoners, there is also a flipside to the image. As Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he had a “lifelong love of gardening and growing vegetables.”[5] A few years into their 18-year-long incarceration, Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trial inmates had in fact set up a garden in the courtyard of Robben Island prison.[6] This had started informally with a few tomato seeds given to them by well-meaning prison guards. On their way to the stone quarry where they were forced to do hard labor, the political prisoners collected ostrich droppings as fertilizer. In time they also planted chilies and other vegetables to complement their meager prison diet. Later, as Mandela was writing the manuscript for what became his autobiography, the completed pages would be buried in cocoa tins in the garden to hide them from the prison authorities. As such, the seemingly benign activity of gardening became a highly politicized gesture—that of claiming and cultivating a patch of land and using it subversively to undermine the oppressive regime—and as a consequence the garden itself became entangled in historical events.[7]


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[1] This image now forms the centerpiece of the Mandela Prison Archive, “a living record of Mandela’s 27 years in prison.” See Nelson Mandela, A Prisoner in the Garden: Opening Nelson Mandela’s Prison Archive (Johannesburg: Nelson Mandela Foundation/Penguin, 2005) and

[2] In their view, the minister acted with “impropriety” insofar as “total strangers are now in possession of photographs and films of ourselves.” In the letter, the prisoners protest against not being allowed to take and send their own photographs to their own families.

[3] More recently, the term “green-washing” has been used to describe the process by which a given organization, company, or institution’s products or policies are made to appear ecologically friendly, precisely through the use of the PR or marketing image, often masking their true ecological costs. However, this is nothing new and can be applied to environmental movements more broadly throughout history. For instance, the “green imperialism” described by Richard Grove can be read through this lens. See Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). In the words of Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, Grove’s history of ecological thought demonstrates that “the environmental sciences that tell us that we can no longer afford to ignore our human impact on the globe are an ironic by-product of a global consciousness derived from a history of imperial exploitation of nature.” Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetics of the Earth,” in Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment, ed. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, 3–39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12. See also the discussion of the paradoxes of conservation in the South African context in Bettina Malcomess, “appear and they…” in this volume, xx–xx.

[4] The co-signatories note the fact that they had not been given the status of political prisoners: “We are fully aware that the Department desires to protect a favourable image to the world of its policies. [sic] We can think of no better way of doing so than by abolishing all forms of racial discrimination in the administration by keeping abreast of enlightened penal reforms, by granting us the status of political prisoners.”

[5] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 2013 [1995]), 41.

[6] The Rivonia trial, which took place between 9 October 1963 and 12 June 1964, led to the imprisonment of Mandela and others. Mandela spent 18 of 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

[7] As Mandela writes: “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. 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.” Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 592–83.