Toffie Food Festival:’Hunger for Freedom’ a ‘gastro-political’ tribute to Nelson Mandela!


One of the highlights of the Toffie Food Festival and Conference was the entertaining and informative talk by Dr Anna Trapido, author of  ‘Hunger for Freedom – The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela’,  which came alive for all of us through a most unusual lunch. 

Inspired by Dr Trapido’s book, TASTE  magazine and Woolworths had created a 19-course meal, each course individually packaged and numbered, and packed in a  paper bag with a legend, referencing each item with a phase in Madiba’s life.  The idea was that the delegates were to collectively eat their food from the packet as Dr Trapido talked us through each of the stages of Madiba’s life, and explained the meaning of food to him in each of these stages.  It was a tremendous amount of information to comprehend in the hour, and I was very fortunate to obtain Dr Trapido’s notes after the presentation.

Dr Trapido told us that her book is not a cookbook, but rather a ‘gastro-political biography’, and demonstrated that one comes full circle to one’s beginning through the food one eats. Foods we like says who we are, she said, and food can be used to express love, dislike, wealth, poverty, protest, celebration, and reconciliation.  A number of women were important in Madiba’s life in preparing food for him, but are not recognised in his biographies.   Madiba’s fellow prisoners have been interviewed, and tell the same story over and over again.  Telling the story of Madiba’s life via his food is unique.  She quoted Madiba as saying: “I was not born with a hunger to be free.  I was born free. Free in every way that I could know…. It was only when I learnt that my boyhood freedom was an illusion … that I began to hunger for it.”

Madiba’s story commenced in Mvezo, born as Rolihlahla Mandela on 18 July 1918, and here his mother Nosekeni gave him Amasi to drink, still his favourite sour milk drink.  ‘Amasi is the ricotta of Southern Africa’, said Dr Trapido.  Madiba wrote about amasi:“I long for amasi – the food for which I loved to sharpen my teeth and to stretch out my tummy, the act that I really enjoyed, went straight into my blood and into my heart and that produced perfect contentment.” 

As a teenager Madiba’s father lost his job as headman, and he therefore sent his wives and children to their respective traditional homes.  Madiba spent his teenage years in Qunu, his mother’s home, and here he met Winnie Matyolo at school, who became his first girlfriend.  This was a posh family, eating with cutlery.  When he went to eat at her home, they tried to discourage the courtship by preparing a half-cooked chicken and giving Madiba cutlery, which he had never previously used.  The chicken went flying off the plate.  The girlfriend’s sister mocked his inability to eat with cutlery, to which the girlfriend replied that she would teach him.  Each delegate had a chicken wing in their lunch pack, and was challenged to eat it with the plastic knife and fork in our pack!

At the Clerksbury Boarding School Madiba often was given a scone with apricot jam by Mrs Harris, the headmaster’s wife, a ‘royal feast’ for him at the time, and a taste he did not forget.  In 1938 he went to study at Fort Hare University, but was expelled the following year for supporting a strike by the kitchen staff.  Madiba moved to Johannesburg, living with the Xhoma family, and through them he met Walter Sisulu, an ANC activist, and a number of later leaders of the ANC Youth League, Oliver Tambo being one of them.  Through Sisulu, an estate agent who brought lots of conveyancing work to the law firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman, Madiba was employed as an articled clerk as a favour to Sisulu.  Saving his money to buy candles with which to study through UNISA at night, he was often hungry at work.  His colleague Nat Bregman shared his pastrami sandwich, by asking Madiba to pull it, as we did with our neighbour at the Festival, and this represented the Communist Party, which shared everything, Madiba was told.  In Johannesburg he met the Naidoo family, and Manonomany Naidoo made a meal of crab curry and rice, the first time that Madiba ate curry and crabs, disliking the taste initially, but he became fond of Indian food generally, and crab curry specifically, over time.

In Johannesburg Madiba met Walter Sisulu’s cousin Evelyn in 1944, and they married a year later. They were married for twelve years and had four children.  In this period he became a lawyer, father, and political activist.   Evelyn was a nurse, and kept the family afloat financially initially.  He loved having his own home, and inviting guests, unannounced to his wife, for dinners.  He planted a peach tree in the garden, the fruit of which went into many favorite dishes. In 1952 a Defiance Campaign for the Defence of Unjust Laws was initiated by the ANC, and Madiba was its Volunteer-in-Chief.   In five months after its launch, 8000 people were imprisoned for using ‘Whites only’ facilities.  It led to a six-month banning order, and Madiba was not allowed to leave Johannesburg, or talk to more than one person at one time.  His wife was happy to have her husband at home for dinner more often!  Madiba and Oliver Tambo opened a law firm in 1953, and many cases related to food, drink and land, e.g. women brewing and selling beer in Cato Manor, and prison labourers exploited on potato farms. The ANC’s Freedom Charter was adopted in 1956, but led to the arrest of Madiba and many others, to be released on bail.  It was Madiba’s political commitments and Evelyn’s religious dedication that led to the failure of the marriage, and they divorced in 1957.  Madiba and the Rivonia trialists were served Besan Ladoo by Thayanagee Pillay for the five years of the trial, as were we as delegates.  Black persons were not allowed to drink alcohol, so George Bizos, their lawyer, served small tots of alcohol, in case there was a police raid. 

Madiba met Winnie, the first social worker in Soweto and a very attractive socialite, featured in DRUM magazine, and it was love at first sight, in that Madiba asked her to marry him at the first lunch they had at a Johannesburg restaurant, one of only two at which Black persons were allowed to eat. She was less enamoured with the lunch, as they were served curry, a dish she had never eaten before, and it made her eyes water and her nose run.  They married a year later. For the wedding at Winnie’s family home in Bizana, Madiba and his friends had to obtain special permission to have the conditions of their banning order relaxed, to attend.  Winnie removed the top layer of the wedding cake, and wanted to take it to Madiba’s family in Qunu, but as they only had 6 days before returning to Johannesburg, Winnie returned with the wedding cake. For the next thirty years it accompanied Winnie: For me, it became a symbol of our love.  I kept it in memory of our wedding and in hopes of a life that never was.  There I was, the most unmarried woman.  I had never lived with him…The cake was really all I knew about marriage… I clung to the cake…”.  In 1988 the cake was destroyed, when the family house burnt down in Soweto.

After the treason trial collapsed in 1961, Umkhonto weSizwe was formed, with Madiba as Commander-in-Chief, and the High Command included Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo.   Madiba went into hiding at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia.  Winnie was smuggled in on occasion, and was very upset when her husband cooked her a lovely steak and pea, and fruit platter lunch, it looking far too perfect, and made her suspicious as to who had taught Madiba.  In 1961 Madiba went on a trip through Africa, to collect monies for the ANC.  On his return, he went to Durban to report back to Chief Luthuli, head of the ANC.  Madiba ate at the home of the Naidoo’s, who made him a feast of chicken and mutton curry.  On his return, Madiba was arrested.  In 1962 Madiba was charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a valid travel permit.  He was sentenced to five years on Robben Island.  Food rations were very sparse.  Prisoners went on a hunger strike, and they were punished with hard labour.  A raid of Lilliesleaf Farm led to the arrest of the Umkhonto weSizwe High Command, and Madiba’s link to it was uncovered, and he returned to Pretoria to stand trial.  He had lost a lot of weight, and fellow trialist Denis Goldberg passed him a piece of chocolate, which the judge saw, as it was visible in Madiba’s cheek.  In 1964 the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to Robben Island.  Here food was allocated on the basis of population group.  Black prisoners were given a 250g mealie, 250g vegetables, 15g fat, 1 cup of coffee, 55g phuzamandla, 15g salt, and 60g meat per day, without any bread.  Coloured and Indian prisoners were served 250g bread, 250g vegetables, 30g fat, 2 cups of coffee, 15g salt, 60g sugar, and 110g meat.  Only 16 years later the meals at Robben Island were ‘de-racialised’.  Warders and prison gangsters stole the meat and the warders urinated at their food when they worked outside.  Offences by prisoners were ‘rewarded’ with meals being taken away, and rice water only was served to prisoners in the isolation cells (we received some too in our lunch pack, but were advised not to drink it, due to its awful taste).  Food was smuggled in, e.g. by  a Hindu priest, who dropped some chillies on the floor, from which the prisoners used the seeds to plant on the island, to spice up their food, mixed with olive oil which they could request for ‘constipation’ from the hospital, to make their food more palatable.  Dullah Omar’s wife Farida regularly tried to smuggle in food via his briefcase, but it was usually found and confiscated.  She did manage to get bananas through on one occasion.  Messages were transferred from studying prisoners, who had access to cellotape, and sealed messages with it at the bottom of the pots.  At Christmas the prisoners earned the right to buy sugar, dried fruit and cocoa from the prison shop.  Using pieces of bread, cocoa, sugar and currants soaked in phuzamandla, they made themselves a Christmas cake.

In 1982 Madiba, Walter Sisulu and some other prisoners were transferred to Pollsmoor, and here the food was much better. Dullah Omar’s smuggling of his wife’s samoosas, rotis and curries was much more successful.  At this time, then-President PW Botha and Henry Kissinger argued over the release of Madiba over a malva pudding, according to Francois Ferreira, then PW Botha’s chef.  A bout of TB allowed Madiba to be sent to Constantiaberg Medi-Clinic, the first Black patient in this hospital.  Kind nurses smuggled in ‘real’ food, like pizzas, chocolate mousse, and even arranged a Christmas party in his room.  He started learning social mores from the nurses.  In 1988 Madiba was moved to Victor Verster, and lived in a prison warders’ house (now called Mandela House), kitted out with a microwave oven, fridge, stove, toaster, and a personal chef, being Warrant Officer Jack Swart, who taught Madiba to make gemmerbier.  In 1989 Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and two more prisoners were released, in the same year that FW de Klerk became State President. 

On 11 February 1990 Madiba walked his first steps to freedom out of Victor Verster with his wife Winnie, spoke to the people of South Africa from the Cape Town City Hall balcony, and spent the first night at the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.   They didn’t know what Madiba liked to eat, so they prepared Tutu’s favourite meal.  Madiba’s first meal of freedom was chicken curry with rice, and rum and raisin ice cream with custard.   Returning to Johannesburg, he re-connected with Mrs Pillay and Mrs Naidoo, as well as his old colleague Nat Bregman.  In 1992 Madiba and Winnie divorced, and Madiba moved to Houghton.  Xoliswa Ndoyiya is his cook, and has been cooking for him for the past twenty years, making tripe, oxtail, isophu, umbhakho, dombolo and umxhaxha.  Madiba won the Nobel Peace Price with FW de Klerk in 1993. In May 1994 Madiba was inaugurated as the new Present of South Africa.  His inauguration dinner was organised by the National Party, and the meal consisted of some non-South African dishes, such as Mexican chicken and Spanish rice, but potjiekos and bobotie were included on the menu, as was the only traditional dish umngqusho.  The meal was served with Graham Beck sparkling wine.

Madiba used food as reconciliation, and invited all former First Ladies to a dinner.  Betsie Verwoerd declined, but invited Madiba to come for tea in Orania, a White-only community.  He accepted, being the first Black person to visit Orania, and she served koeksisters.  Mrs Verwoerd commented afterwards that Madiba was a ‘real gentleman’.  We laughed when Dr Trapido told a story about a trip by Madiba to the United Kingdon, staying at the Dorchester Hotel, where he missed his traditional food.  He demanded that umphokoqo be flown in from home, the container wrapped up to look like a present, so that it could get through Customs. Madiba’s PA Zelda la Grange was on standby to contact then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to intervene, should the important package not find its way to the Dorchester Hotel!

Madiba met Graça Machel in 1990, and she visited the family home in Qunu with Madiba in 1996 for the first time, making a traditional Mozambican Christmas meal, with prawns, crabs and other seafood.  The family had never eaten such foods, and craved meat, but over the years they have come to love ‘Aunty Graça’s’ seafood.  Since his third marriage, Madiba has been encouraged to breakfast later, and to eat what he enjoys, e.g. Frosties with warm milk, double toffee ice cream, and ribs.  Madiba moved to Qunu recently, and is expected to stay there, having gone back full circle to where he started his love for traditional Xhosa food.

‘Hunger for Freedom – The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela’,  Anna Trapido.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio:  Twitter:@WhaleCottage

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