A real life half-century-old spy thrilleresque mystery is back in the news. How did the South African police manage to capture Nelson Mandela so easily outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at a new international wrinkle in this story.
This story reads like one of those really convoluted John LeCarre novels, or perhaps Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. But before we even begin to tell this tale, the most recent news from Langley, the town in Northern Virginia where the CIA hangs its hat in the US, concerns the rather embarrassing information that the spies have accidentally managed to destroy their only copy of the US Senate’s report on torture at US hands.
In a rather awkward admission, according to Yahoo News, “The CIA inspector general’s office – the spy agency’s internal watchdog – has acknowledged it ‘mistakenly’ destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved…. The deletion of the document has been portrayed by agency officials to Senate investigators as an ‘inadvertent’ foul-up by the inspector-general. In what one intelligence community source described as a series of errors straight ‘out of the Keystone Cops’, CIA inspector-general officials deleted an uploaded computer file with the report and then accidentally destroyed a disk that also contained the document, filled with thousands of secret files about the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods.”
Big oops, that one, although they explained later they still had a computer copy squirrelled away somewhere in their puzzle palace. But mistakes do happen. Fortunately for some, at least, the Senate managed to hang onto its copy. And this latest miscue doesn’t count the exploding cigar they once contemplated as Fidel Castro’s last puff.
But internationally at least, almost certainly the worst blow to the CIA’s reputation in recent days surely has come from a reported deathbed confession made to filmmaker John Irvin, for his upcoming UK-SA joint feature film, “Mandela’s Gun”. The film hangs on the Russian-made Makarov pistol Nelson Mandela received from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962 while he was on his journey through Africa to drum up support for the ANC. Among other places, he was in Ethiopia and then Algeria for hands-on tactical military training, before returning home via Bechuanaland (now Botswana, but at that time a British protectorate).
Interestingly, it seems that during this run of military training, while his first thoughts were that this prized pistol would be his first step in a real revolution, he was, instead, guided into considering the alternative idea that conflict was a means towards reaching an inevitable negotiated settlement, rather than serving as an end in itself for achieving a violent victory. This insight apparently came to Mandela decades before he publicly advocated that view and brought it fully into liberation struggle policy, after his release from prison, in tandem with ideas espoused by some other ANC/SACP figures like Joe Slovo.
During this period in the ‘60s, Mandela had earned the popular sobriquet, the “Scarlet Pimpernel”, for his ability to evade the South African authorities in his travels within the country, and by virtue of his ability to evade the authorities as he slipped beyond South Africa’s borders. However, Mandela’s return to South Africa and his subsequent travels in the country before his arrest were also a less than perfect demonstration of clandestine agent-style tradecraft in avoiding detection.
He arrived in Bechuanaland where he met theatre director (and SACP member) Cecil Williams in a pre-arranged rendezvous. Mandela was driven to Johannesburg and the ANC’s secret base at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, without passing through a border passport control gate, while in Williams’ distinctive Austin sedan. Williams and Mandela then used this same car to go on to Durban, and then, after meetings there with Albert Luthuli and others, the plan was to return to Johannesburg, but they were stopped and apprehended by the police at Howick in the Natal Midlands instead.
In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela had written about the night before his departure from Durban, after meeting with Bruno Ntolo’s sabotage group. (Ntolo would later turn state’s witness in the Rivonia Trial, and some have pointed to him as the man who may have helped set up Mandela’s capture.) Mandela wrote of his day before his arrest, “Later that same evening, at the home of the photojournalist GR Naidoo, where I was staying, I was joined by Ismail and Fatima Meer, Monty Naicker, and JN Singh for what was a combination welcome-home party and going-away party” before setting off to Johannesburg.
Of that gathering, Fatima Meer described the gathering, saying, “Nelson cut a large military figure in khaki, his laugh booming the familiar welcome as he embraced each friend. They drank and ate and discussed politics. They laughed a lot, excited by their intrigue. The police were looking for Nelson and here they were partying with him, virtually under their noses.”
Clandestine tradecraft apparently was not much in evidence that evening. Then, the next day, on that return journey, still in the same car, and with Mandela rather casually disguised as Williams’ chauffer, David Motsamayi, the police caught up with the two men on the road, as Williams was driving the car – and the purported chauffeur was in the passenger seat instead.
Mandela biographer Martin Meredith wrote that as soon as word was out that the Pimpernel had been captured, “Everyone was convinced Mandela had been betrayed. Suspicion about who the culprit was ran wild. Even Sisulu was suspected in some quarters, for it was he who had insisted that Mandela should return to South Africa.
“There were persistent rumours that the United States Central Intelligence Agency was involved. Mandela’s links with communists had made him a target for US officials embroiled with the Soviet Union in a murky struggle for influence in a number of newly independent African states and obsessed with the need to contain communist encroachment in Africa. The CIA was active throughout southern Africa, keeping track of the activities of liberation movements there, determined to prevent what it saw as communist-supported armed intervention ‘under the guise of African liberation’. It found an ally in the South African government, which was only too willing to collaborate.
“…The CIA covert-operations section in Johannesburg had expended considerable energy penetrating the ANC. Its chief undercover agent, Millard Shirley, the son of American missionaries who had been born in South Africa had cultivated contacts at all levels of the organisation.”
Back in 1997 when he wrote this biography, Meredith had added that a US vice consul in Durban, Donald Rickard, had been overheard at a party in Durban saying that he had played a key part in Mandela’s arrest. Moreover, Meredith also mentioned a CIA station chief, Paul Eckel, who after his retirement had told a journalist, “We had turned Mandela over to the South African Security Branch. We gave them every detail.” Evaluating all this, Meredith also noted, “Given Mandela’s amateurish conduct in the days before his arrest, it was equally possible that the South African police already knew of his whereabouts from their own efforts.”
Rickard apparently ran with a rather wild crowd in Durban and he had made that comment while apparently inebriated and perhaps given to exaggeration and enthusiasm at a party hosted by the Irish-born “Mad” Mike Hoare. Hoare was the increasingly legendary and thoroughly infamous paratrooper turned mercenary who had carried out a number of raids around the continent for various shady purposes – and eventually carried out at least one coup attempt – in the Seychelles. Interestingly, after Rickard left Durban, despite the persistent rumours – clearly fuelled by his own comments – Rickard spent years denying the story. In 2012, for example, he told the Wall Street Journal, “That story has been floating around for a while. It’s untrue. There’s no substance to it.”
There things might have stayed, merely unsubstantiated rumours and much quiet finger pointing over who had sold Mandela to the CIA or the SA police, or to both (echoes of the famous line in 1984, “Under the spreading chestnut tree I sold you and you sold me…”), save for the fact that three years ago, in an interview when he was practically on his deathbed, Rickard recanted his repeated recantations and once again embraced his role as the crucial element in Mandela’s capture in 1962.
This interview was carried out for a film directed by John Irvin, a work now nearly finished, and entitled Mandela’s Gun. Rickard was quoted in the media as having told the filmmakers, Mandela was “completely under the control of the Soviet Union, a toy of the communists”. Given the nature of the Cold War struggle and a more than an occasional hot one throughout Africa, in Indochina, and given the circumstances of Castro’s Cuba, among other spots, the motivations and actions of CIA operatives, even when they were acting on their own, can be better understood and appreciated, even if not not condoned. Shades of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, perhaps.
The film’s storyline spins out from the now-missing Makarov pistol he had secured while in Ethiopia and Mandela’s travels in Africa on that journey. The point is that Mandela had said he buried it in a secure spot in the garden at Lilliesleaf – but the police never found it then, and it has never been recovered since by the police or anybody else – right until today.
Then, this past weekend, word of Rickard’s final confession in connection with this film leaked out into the world’s media through the British press, stirring up much more than a small cloud of interest, and more than a few frowns in the direction of the CIA – and the US more generally. By the end of the weekend, it had become a lead story on the BBC news broadcasts, and it was being reported globally on many platforms as effective confirmation of the long-circulating rumours about the CIA’s involvement. Yet one more nail in the tattered reputation of that agency, it would seem.
In response to this story, not surprisingly, ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa announced over the weekend, “That revelation confirms what we have always known, that they are working against [us], even today. It’s not thumbsucked, it’s not a conspiracy [theory]. It is now confirmed that it did not only start now [a reference to recent ANC charges that US exchange grants such as Mandela Washington Fellows are an element in a regime change agenda], there is a pattern in history.”
In reply, the US Embassy’s press officer, Cynthia Harvey, told us, “The US Embassy in Pretoria is aware of the story. We have no information about the claims made in these media reports. South Africa is a strategic partner and friend of the United States. The United States does not regard the democratically elected government of South Africa, and its strong democratic institutions, as a ‘regime’. 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.”
It is almost certainly true that no documentation relating to this charge (one way or the other) would remain in the embassy after more than half a century, but elsewhere? There is, in fact, yet another possible element in this story – material that could have some distressing impacts on US-South African relations, 54 years after the event. Several years ago, an American academic researcher, a doctoral candidate at MIT, Ryan Shapiro, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all documents still classified and held by various American government agencies, relating to America’s engagement with Nelson Mandela back in the 1960s. The government declined to comply with initial request on the grounds the request constituted a “fishing expedition”. It was far too broad and, therefore, they could not carry it out.
However, the researcher then went to court in January 2014 to compel the CIA to comply with his original FOIA request. So far, there has been no judgment on his appeal of his FOIA request, yet, let alone any disclosure of documents. But, if such a thing does happen and if they confirm what Rickard said at the end of his life, that will be a rather awkward and embarrassing moment for a number of people – and at least one government. DM
Photo: Dark rain clouds cover the newly erected Nelson Mandela Statue in Howick, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, 06 August 2012. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.
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