He spent nearly three decades in prison. Known the world over as a freedom fighter and an ambassador of social justice, today Nelson Mandela is an icon whose death in 2013 at age 95 sparked mourning around the globe.
President Barack Obama and a high-profile official delegation that included former presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton attended the memorial service, televised everywhere on the planet. But—if a former State Department official and reported Central Intelligence Agency operative can be believed—the U.S. government aided in Mandela’s 1962 capture and thus bears some responsibility for the 27 years he spent in jail.
Donald Rickard, who died in March, alleges that U.S. intelligence had a direct hand in Mandela’s apprehension. In fact, the former U.S. vice-consul in Durban, who was reportedly employed by the CIA until 1978, said he was the spy who tipped South African authorities to Mandela’s whereabouts en route between Durban and Johannesburg.
“I found out when he was coming down and how he was coming,” Rickard reportedly told a British filmmaker. “That’s where I was involved and that’s where Mandela was caught.”
In those days, the man affectionately called Madiba was an anti-apartheid revolutionary deep in the throes of a resistance campaign against the South African government. This was at the height of the Cold War, and many in the U.S. foreign intelligence community also believed Mandela was cooperating with and receiving support from the Soviet Union.
Complicating matters further, the U.S. also was grappling with its own civil rights movement and the fight to destroy segregationist Jim Crow laws. A year after Mandela was jailed, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the March on Washington, and was put under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
For his part, Mandela never publicly blamed the U.S. for his imprisonment. In his autobiography, he says the arrest was a result of his own mistakes. “I cannot lay my capture at [the CIA’s door],” he wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom.
This isn’t the first time the explosive allegation has come to light. A report by the Cox News Service in 1990, after Mandela’s release, appears to bolster Rickard’s claims, although it is possible he was one of the sources.
In the Cox report, a former U.S. official “now retired” called the American role in the affair “one of the most shameful, utterly horrid” incidents in what Cox called “the Cold War struggle between Moscow and Washington for influence in the Third World.”
The Cox report cited Gerard Ludi, a retired South African intelligence officer, saying the CIA placed an undercover agent inside the African National Congress (ANC). “The morning after a secret dinner party with other congress members in Durban, Mr. Mandela, dressed as a chauffeur, ran into a roadblock. He was immediately recognized and arrested,” Cox wrote.
According to a follow-up report in The New York Times, “Because of concern over the propriety of the CIA’s actions in the Mandela case, ‘higher authorities’ required that the State Department approve any similar operations in the future.” The report said “the State Department refused on at least three occasions to allow the agency to provide South African officials with information about other dissidents.”
“Higher authority,” in CIA parlance, is a widely accepted euphemism for the president.
However, investigative journalist Jim DiEugenio contends that John F. Kennedy, who was president at the time, exhibited “extraordinary” support for “Third World leaders” like Mandela, despite hostility among most U.S. military and intelligence officials.
“What is clear… is that Kennedy was a proponent of nationalism,” DiEugenio wrote for Consortium News, “the belief that native peoples living in areas emerging from colonialism and imperialism should have control of their own natural resources.”
Whether the future South African president was privately regarded with suspicion by the Kennedy White House is not known, but it had long been rumored that Mandela was “working for both sides,” a former intelligence official told The Daily Beast and that information surely made its way to the halls of the West Wing and into the Oval Office.
Mandela, who was freed from Robben Island in 1990 and later elected president in his nation’s first “free and fair” election, was “completely under the control of the Soviet Union,” Rickard reportedly told British film director John Irving.
Irving traveled to the U.S. to interview Rickard in the months before he died.
Rickard, who appeared to have had no regrets about Mandela’s jailing or his personal involvement, never stopped believing that he was serving American interests.
“He could have incited a war in South Africa, the United States would have to get involved, grudgingly, and things could have gone to hell,” Rickard says in Mandela’s Gun, which is set for screening at the Cannes Film Festival this week. “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,” he said, proudly.
Mandela—who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk—remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list as late as 2008.
“What an indignity,” Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said as he pressed a bill to remove Mandela and other African National Congress leaders from that list. The now-former congressman, who was chairman of the House International Relations Committee at the time, said, “The ANC set an important example: It successfully made the change from armed struggle to peace. We should celebrate the transformation.”
At the time of the arrest on August 5, 1962, according to the 1990 Cox News Service story, the CIA was active inside South Africa. The U.S. believed that a successful nationalist movement threatened their otherwise friendly ties with the South African government. Administration officials were said to fear the de-stabilization of “other African states” should the movement expand beyond South African borders.
Reached by The Daily Beast, an unnamed ranking U.S. State Department official confirmed the CIA was “deeply involved” in Mandela’s arrest.
But, involvement with South African intelligence may not have ended in 1962 or even after Mandela was freed, according to the ruling ANC party. “We always knew there was always collaboration between some Western countries and the apartheid regime," ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said.
Kodwa told a reporter, “They never stopped operating here…. It is still happening now. The CIA is still collaborating with those who want regime change.”
“We have recently observed that there are efforts to undermine the democratically elected ANC government,” he continued.
The CIA’s communication office declined formal comment, but a State Department spokesperson for the Bureau of African Affairs released a statement to The Daily Beast, saying, “We have no information about the claims made in these media reports. Claims that we seek to undermine South African democracy run contrary to the spirit of the proud and longstanding relationship we have with South Africa.”
The spokesperson also called the country a “strategic partner” and a “friend of the United States.”
—With additional reporting by Shane Harris in Washington, D.C.