South Africa


Newly released US government documents reveal spicy gossip about Mandela and Graça’s marriage

Newly released US government documents reveal spicy gossip about Mandela and Graça’s marriage
A file picture dated 30 January 1996 shows Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela with his wife Graca Machel in Cape Town, South Africa. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

A newly released collection of recently declassified US government documents reveals how the CIA predicted events after the release of Nelson Mandela from incarceration and cleared the mysteries of what defence attachés actually do all day, as well as a bit of spicy gossip about the man whose 100th anniversary of his birth has just occurred.

On Nelson Mandela’s 100th anniversary, a public advocacy group, Property of the People, released a cache of US government documents detailing a wide variety of US-South Africa relations topics, reaching back to 1962, which it had gained under Freedom of Information requests.

The head of Property of the People (PoP) is Ryan Shapiro, whom some readers with deep memories may recall has been chasing after US government materials related to South Africa’s nuclear programme, among other intriguing themes.

According to PoP, this group has taken credit for exposing Donald Trump’s violations of the emoluments clause of the US Constitution (the bit that prohibits a president from gaining other income by virtue of his position), and, according to their website:

We exposed the FBI’s anti-communist crusade against Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.”

At least we know where their hearts are.

Like other FOIA – Freedom of Information Act – activists, some of their efforts have garnered significant media coverage and deepened historians’ insights into events. A recent story uncovering the legally iffy Defence Department’s use of Trump-branded properties, for example, was carried prominently by CNN. As an aside, this author, having engaged in several FOIA efforts over the years, can attest to just how tedious it can be, figuring out just what one wants, thereby limiting the government’s search so that it is not too big and costly for the requester, or so narrowly defined that nothing presumably shows up in government files; but just broad enough so that the actual picture from the documentation emerges in all its embarrassing or illuminating glory.

Anyway, the particular tranche of documents in question now reaches as far back as the early 1960s and includes precisely the kind of thing one would expect defence attachés to report home about – the details of military preparedness, deployments for peacekeeping in other African states, military sales, the efforts of various nations to convince the South African government pre- and post-1994 that their particular bits of military kit on offer were better than anybody else’s – or at least cheaper, or whatever. That kind of reporting is their job and that’s what they get paid for by every government that has such people assigned to their respective embassies. But this particular collection also includes reports conveying the kind of gossipy cocktail party chatter one picks up at diplomatic receptions, or while wandering the countryside listening carefully to malcontents.

The former includes those snippets of reports on peacekeeping operations in Burundi, while the latter offers the kinds of things an enthusiastic military attaché might have learnt between his second and third Martini at some diplomatic or military reception. In particular, one such report reads:

Graça [Machel’s] enmity toward Zimbabwean President Robert [Mugabe] is allegedly more motivated by his refusal to marry her than outrage over his handling Zimbabwean affairs. Her service as one of ‘The Elders’ gave her the perfect opportunity to get her revenge. Nelson [Mandela] married Graça, although not keen on the idea, at the request of regional leaders due to a sense of obligation…. Conversation took place several years ago among regional leaders on what to do with Graça?

Graça, as the deceased Mozambican President Samora [Machel’s] widow, was considered the most important widow in region and it was considered an obligation that someone at her level take her on. Regional leaders originally proposed that Mugabe marry her, but Mugabe adamantly refused and made disparaging remarks about her that made it to Graça. Since then Graça has had it in for Mugabe, and her service as one of ‘The Elders’, and the Zimbabwean government’s refusal to grant ‘The Elders’ permission to visit Zimbabwe, gave her the perfect opportunity to get her revenge.

After Mugabe turned Graça down the regional leaders approached the then-South African President Nelson [Mandela] who begrudging [sic] accepted the proposal. Mandela was not keen on the idea, but acquiesced due to a sense of obligation.”

This particular document, dated March 2009, does not – at least not in the parts allowed to be released – say who the source of this insight into court intrigue was, but it would be easy to surmise it was someone who was less than overwhelmed by any of the participants in this little arrangement.

In reference to titbits like this one, American Embassy spokesperson Cynthia Harvey explained:

We are aware that a non-profit organisation posted US government documents online that make reference to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who would have turned 100 years old on July 18.

Our policies have evolved over time. The US government has already made large amounts of documents and information related to President Mandela public, including by declassifying documents, to shed light on the foreign relations of the United States with South Africa. I encourage you to visit the State Department’s Virtual Reading Room at; other agencies like the CIA have similar public websites.

The United States and South Africa are focused on the future. South Africa is a strategic partner and friend of the United States, and our work together reflects our shared values and commitment to integrating markets, combating climate change and wildlife trafficking, advancing human rights, and enhancing trade and investment flows. We remain focused on these shared priorities and acknowledge the positive and productive relationship we share.”

Well, of course, that is all perfectly true, but such overarching joint goals have never stopped diplomatic “snoops” from passing along a good story to their home offices to look like they are really, really in the know.

In a more serious, less embarrassing vein, there is an especially intriguing 1986 CIA study entitled: “Nelson Mandela: What If Alive and Well and Free in South Africa?”

Without providing the full text here, and minus the redacted bits, the introductory paragraphs give the flavour of an appropriately realpolitik assessment (in sync with most foreign centre-right analysts or veteran journalists, but with a special focus on the question of communism in South Africa consistent with the time period of the report). The report speaks to the possibilities of South Africa’s future in the midst of an apartheid government-declared “State of Emergency” from the perspectives then in force among US government circles.

This document begins:

Imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is the most popular leader among South African blacks, many of whom view him as the ‘president-in-waiting’ of a post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela, who was in his midforties and already had well-established views when he entered prison in 1962, is an African nationalist and a socialist. Although time and incarceration have undoubtedly had their impact, his fundamental political philosophy has not changed. Before his imprisonment Mandela worked closely with many South African Communists (most of whom were not black), but the evidence on whether he is a Communist, although not conclusive, tends to support his claim that he never joined the South African Communist Party. Mandela’s writings reveal an affinity for Marxist economic tenets and an appreciation for the Soviet Union but stop short of endorsing Communist political systems. Pretoria has often charged Mandela with being a Communist, but it has never been able to substantiate its allegation, in court or otherwise.”

The CIA went on to observe:

We believe that Mandela, if released unconditionally, would quickly assume the leadership of the black protest movement. Almost all black opposition figures, describing him as a legitimate representative of their aspirations, have demanded his release. Most black leaders would welcome his release, and the few who privately do not would find it politically difficult, perhaps even dangerous, to come out against him.”

Rather presciently, given that the Reagan White House was still only grudgingly moving towards coming to terms with the president signing the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act into law, the CIA was already looking ahead to the inevitable negotiations over the future of the country. They concluded that much of Mandela’s positioning in negotiations would be to seek to convince whites they have a place in South Africa’s post-apartheid future.

They ended their paper, arguing:

Mandela’s age and his perception of his place in history are likely to push him to move quickly on talks. His perception that there is relatively little time left to him might enhance his willingness to compromise on secondary issues. At the same time, however, young militants might regard concessions as a sign of weakness and challenge Mandela; he would thus probably insist that whites make most concessions. Mandela would also, in our view, approach talks in the awareness that they might fail and would therefore be prepared to support a resumption of violence if he believed that was the only way to wrest real change from Pretoria.”

Much of this trove of documents – written in a kind of bureaucratic breathlessness – contains rumours and whispers of assassination plots, or information about potential meetings between Mandela and other world figures following his release and then on into the period of his first international visits, especially to the US. The earliest materials in this collection come from the government’s periodic intelligence briefings for the most senior officials, detailing the extent and impact of black labour strikes and a bombing campaign back in the early 1960s.

What this particular cache of documents does not deal with is any faint tendrils of a trail that might lead back to the possibility that CIA officer Donald Rickard, based in Durban, had had a key role in Mandela’s capture on the way to Johannesburg at the now-memorialised Howick capture site. Rickard had once claimed such a role, then recanted that claim, and then later, virtually on his deathbed, reclaimed his role in Mandela’s capture en route to Johannesburg by South African police. Conclusive proof – one way or the other – may still be out there, buried very deep in old mouldering microfilmed records or mildewed paper documents buried deep in some storage room.

Regardless, the documents that have been released still will undoubtedly be useful to historians interested in what the various intelligence agencies of the US government knew, believed, or surmised to be the case at a crucial time in South Africa’s history – and, most important of all, what they were telling the country’s top officials at the time of how to think about South Africa, its struggles, and its leadership. DM


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