A long walk to lunch

In his autobiography Madiba declared: “I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars — It was only when I learned that my boyhood freedom was an illusion — that I began to hunger for it.”

Ninetieth birthday mania is upon us and with it has come a largely well- meaning but erroneous tendency to deify the former president. Since gods feel no pain, this process potentially belittles the extent of Madiba’s personal sacrifice and that of those around him. As it is impossible to emulate a god, deification allows the rest of us to admire at a distance without exerting any energy to follow his example.

What better way to restore humanity to a living legend than to ask what he had for lunch? Hunger for Freedom; the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela traces Madiba’s gastro-political journey in food stories and recipes from the corn-grinding stone of his Mvezo birthplace through wedding cakes, prison hunger strikes, presidential banquets and ultimately into a retirement deliciously infused with Mozambican seafood.

Cooking and eating are unusual biographical tools but food is everyone’s favourite form of material culture and like any art form the culinary arts produce telling social, political, historical and economic insights. Besides, the man himself has always been justifiably proud of his gastronomic exploits. On August 31 1970 Madiba wrote to his wife Winnie from Robben Island prison: “How I long for amasi, thick and sour! You know darling there is one respect in which I dwarf all my contemporaries or at least about which I can confidently claim to be second to none — healthy appetite.”

Whatever his personal gustatory prowess it is impossible to look at Madiba’s food habits in isolation. As his friend and comrade Joe Matthews says: “The interesting thing about the South African political struggle was that it was led by very close friends: Tambo, Mda, Sisulu, myself and so on. We were not only colleagues but very close friends.” Those with whom Madiba cooked and ate read like a who’s who of 20th and 21st century South African political history. ANC Youth League meetings were sustained by Ma Sisulu’s isonka sombhako pot bread. Cross- racial congress movement alliances were formed over Amina Pahad’s chicken curries and Ray Harmel’s chopped liver. When the police raided the 1956 Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto they confiscated (and used as evidence in the subsequent trial) many documents including the signs from the catering tent, which advertised that both “soup with meat” and “soup without meat” were available.

Once you start looking at history through the kitchen window it’s hard to stop. In apartheid South Africa every dish was served against a backdrop of racial oppression. George Bizos and Madiba were eating fish and chips in their car when they went to defend out-of-town legal cases because there was nowhere, not even a park bench, for them to lunch together. The guest list for his 1958 wedding to Winnie Madikizela in Bizana was profoundly curtailed by the fact that almost every significant political activist was banned, jailed or in exile.

And the gastro-political experience didn’t stop with Madiba’s imprisonment. Food conditions for prisoners on Robben Island reflected the injustices of the apartheid society from whence they sprang and the prisoners’ fights to improve their dietary fate mirrored those of their broader struggle. In 1970 Madiba wrote of prison food: “A human being whatever his colour ought never to be compelled toward the taking of meals simply as a duty. This is likely to be the case if the product is poor, monotonous, badly prepared and tasteless.”

Whether it was concessions gained by way of hunger strikes, smuggling messages between different sections of the prison at the bottom of cooking pots or hunting and braaiing wild birds and rabbits caught at the lime quarry, Robben Island soldiers marched on their stomachs and asserted their sense of humanity by subverting the prison food regime.

As prison conditions gradually improved there were hotplates at Pollsmoor and Jack Swart as a full-time chef at Victor Verster prison, but a prisoner is a prisoner even when he lives in a gilded cage with a microwave and someone to bake him wholewheat bread and home-brewed wheat beer. No amount of eating chocolate mousse with the nurses at the Constantiaberg clinic can assuage the longing for family. In 1986 Madiba, who had at the point of writing been in prison for 22 years, would remind his wife of “the wonderful dish you used to prepare for supper. The spaghetti and simple mince from some humble township butchery! As I entered the house from the gym in the evening that flavour would hit me full flush in the tongue.”

The history of South Africa’s transition to democracy can be read on a plate from the first meal of freedom (Lillian Ngoboza’s chicken stew followed by rum-and-raisin ice-cream at Bishopscourt) to the culinary confusion of the inauguration (where the outgoing administration organised a tragic combination of boerekos and outmoded Seventies food horrors) and on into the gastro-reconciliation of koeksisters with Betsie Verwoerd in Orania. Similarly the personal transition from president to pensioner can be read in Xoliswa Ndoyiya’s chutney chicken recipe, Graça Machel’s caranguejo recheado (stuffed crabs) and ultimately a retirement so relaxed that Frosties at the breakfast table (with warm milk) are de rigeur.

In short, to look at an epic life through food cuts past the God mirage into the daily existence of a very real man: a man who has nourished South Africa and the world with his unstinting appetite for freedom. Happy birthday Madiba.

Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido is published by Jacana Media in association with the Nelson Mandela Foundation

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Anna Trapido
Guest Author

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