Mandela’s Arrest and the CIA: New evidence for historians?

Scholars of African colonial and apartheid history were given some possible new important evidence last weekend about the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Nelson Mandela’s arrest in August, 1962.

Nelson-Mandela in 1962In what was described by journalists as a ‘bombshell disclosure’, the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper carried an article entitled ‘How the CIA Trapped Mandela’, with details about a former CIA spy, Donald Rickard, who – just two weeks before his death aged 88 in March, 2016 – revealed in a taped confession that his spy agency tipped off the South African security forces about the location of Mandela.

Nelson Mandela, who was head of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), was known as the ‘Black Pimpernel’ at the time, and was the apartheid regime’s most wanted man. As far as Rickard was concerned, Mandela was ‘the world’s most dangerous communist outside of the Soviet Union’.

The new information certainly gives another insight into the ways that the American intelligence agency was playing a covert role in fighting what it regarded as revolutionary communism in Africa. With America’s more open access to intelligence files, historians of the Cold War have built up quite a bit of information about the CIA’s secret role in the Middle East during the 1950s and early 1960s, but arguably not as much evidence about the agency’s role in Africa. This new material on Mandela will possibly be very helpful to researchers.

Rickard’s CIA ‘cover’ in 1962 was that he was officially the US vice-consul in Durban (intelligence officers are often attached to embassies or diplomatic missions). There were reports that Rickard had been overheard drunkenly boasting about his role in the arrest at a diplomatic party at the time, and that he was disciplined by his CIA bosses for this blunder, but he firmly denied this when it was raised again by investigators in 2012.

However, it would now appear that Rickard had a dramatic change of heart just prior to his death. The former CIA operative, who was employed by the intelligence agency until his retirement in 1978, made his confession to the British film director John Irvin, who has been working on recreating Mandela’s final months of freedom before his arrest, for his new film Mandela’s Gun. Irvin’s film is being previewed at the Cannes Film Festival currently underway in France.

The new disclosure helps to clear up a 54-year old mystery: how did South African security officials have such precise knowledge about where Mandela would be on the day he was captured? There have been various rumours and theories over the decades, but no firm evidence. Rickard apparently believed that Mandela was ‘completely under the control of the Soviet Union’ and was ‘a toy of the communists’, who was about to incite the Indian population of Natal into a communist-led uprising against the South African regime. Rickard feared that this would inevitably lead to Soviet intervention, which would – in turn – draw in the United States. He said: ‘We were teetering on the brink here and it had to be stopped, which meant Mandela had to be stopped. And I put a stop to it’.

Nelson Mandela in colourAccording to the Sunday Times article, the controversial secret about the role of the CIA was something so explosive that even Mandela himself refused to address it when he emerged from prison nearly 28 years later. Interestingly, however, within hours of the newspaper’s story, sources in South Africa began to challenge this interpretation.

Denis Goldberg, for example, a friend and fellow veteran of Mandela in the anti-apartheid struggle, claimed that Mandela ‘always knew’ that the CIA had played a role in his arrest in 1962. But, after his release, the ANC leader decided that it no longer mattered. In Goldberg’s memory of the time, Mandela said: ‘So what? It doesn’t matter. It’s old history and we have to get on’.

This sounds plausible. Mandela became the country’s first black president, was keen to move on, and helped bring about a process of healing and reconciliation to the new post-apartheid nation. But the story also raises another issue for historians and commentators: if Rickard’s evidence is reliable, was he a ‘rogue’ operative, who took his own initiative in tipping off the South African authorities about Mandela, or was his action authorised by his CIA bosses back at HQ in Virginia? And would Washington have been happy about this?

These are intriguing questions. I suspect historians of the period still have plenty to discover.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University



This entry was posted in African History, American history, Black History, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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