Nelson Mandela’s tummy growled for past meals at Kapitan’s (his favorite curry house) when he was holed up for eighteen years on Robben Island in Cape Town’s Table Bay. Flat as a dishcloth and nibbled into a near-desert by a massive rabbit population, Robben Island was enough to make any revolutionary’s heart sink.
Even the mountain tortoise, which had been introduced there as part of a “Noah’s Ark” experiment in the 1950s, kept trying to leave the island, hopping off the rocks, making a beeline for the distant shores of Cape Town, only to be apprehended, fished out, and sent back.
The kitchens of Robben Island Prison were like men’s prison kitchens everywhere: Those on cooking duty, always non-political inmates, squirreled away the choicest morsels for themselves and, grinning, offered their fellow convicts platters of food thickened with sand and other gritty, sticky bits of dirt, all seasoned by the pellucid or polished black carapaces and legs of insects.
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It was most often black African prisoners who were served up this stomach-churning rubbish for breakfast, slapped into metal bowls, the bowls often unwashed from the day before. The prison authorities decided, in a deliberately divisive move, that the food of Africans should be based on what they called the “F” diet, while “Coloreds and Indians” should receive the “D” diet. What they wanted to suggest was that the prisoners were not all equally “human.”
Mealie (maize), however, predominated in both eating plans, usually in the form of cornmeal porridge, mealie pap, in the morning for breakfast. Mealies then reappeared at lunchtime; mealie rice was mixed with ground-up mealies to make samp. If Mandela was given lunch while laboring at the prison quarry, van Rensburg, the officer in charge, always chose to urinate close to the food.
His gradual passage to freedom via open prison can be traced through his changing breakfasts. Some moments of liberty tasted of the fish cakes with a poached egg on top Mandela was served in hospital when he recuperated from an operation to drain his lungs of water. He asked for fish cakes for breakfast, as often as possible. A further sign of a huge shift in the government’s attitude toward Mandela was apparent when they had him recuperate in the Constantiaberg Clinic, a luxurious private clinic set in the suburbs of Cape Town.
There, despite dietary instructions to the contrary, a breakfast was served to him of bacon, scrambled eggs, and buttered toast. The delicious, unfamiliar aroma wafted around Nelson’s heart. The deputy commander from Pollsmoor tried to pull the tray out of the nurse’s hands, until Mandela interjected:
Major, I am sorry. If this breakfast will kill me, then today I am prepared to die.
On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.