Did the CIA Betray Nelson Mandela?

South African President Nelson Mandela a
South African President Nelson Mandela a
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South African President Nelson Mandela arrives 10 February 1995 to visit the notorious Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town where he spent 19 of his 27 years in jail. Credit - Guy Tillim—AFP/GettyImages

On Sunday afternoon, August 5th, 1962, Nelson Mandela was in a late-model Austin Westminster coupe making its way from Durban to Johannesburg. It was about a seven-hour drive. Even though Mandela was posing as a chauffeur in a long duster coat, he was sitting in the passenger seat. The driver was Cecil Williams, a white communist theater director and underground member of the African National Congress. Mandela, a fugitive from the apartheid regime and the leader of the ANC’s newly formed military wing, was South Africa’s most wanted man.

Several days before, Mandela had returned from a two-month trip across Africa where he had been raising money for the ANC’s military campaign and receiving military training himself. Just before he left to return to South Africa, he had been given a Soviet-made Makarov pistol in Ethiopia. He had that gun with him in the car. Mandela had been summoned back by the ANC’s leadership who wanted him on the ground to lead the guerilla war against the white-supremacist state. The night before, on August 4th, he had gone to a secret dinner with other ANC leaders in Durban. He wore his khaki military fatigues and it was a happy evening of friendship and laughter. Everyone there said he seemed unconcerned about the country-wide manhunt for him.

Mandela and Williams had been on the road for a couple of hours when, on a narrow, hilly pass a few miles outside of the town of Howick Falls, a Ford V-8 pulled in front of Mandela’s car. The driver signaled Williams to stop. Mandela knew instantly what was happening: he was caught. Here is what he told me about that moment in 1993 when I was working with him on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

MANDELA: Now I had a revolver which was unlicensed, and I just took it out and put it between the seats. And at one time, I thought I could open the door fast and roll down but I didn’t know how long, you know, this bank was and what was there. I was not familiar with the landscape… But I was very fit in those days, and I could virtually climb any wall. And then I looked at the back just at the rear-view mirror I saw there were two cars behind, then I felt that, no, it would be ridiculous for me to try and escape—they’ll shoot me.

Mandela was always a cautious revolutionary. If he had tried to escape, it’s possible that history would not remember Nelson Mandela at all. Mandela told me that a tall slender South African policeman whom he’d never met approached the car, took out an arrest warrant, and politely asked Mandela to identify himself. Mandela, who had grown a beard while in Africa, and had been underground for nearly two years, gave him his alias, David Motsamayi. According to Mandela, the officer said, “Agh, you are Nelson Mandela and this is Cecil Williams and I am arresting you.” The officer, who had never seen either of them before, knew exactly who they were.

That small detail and a host of others that have emerged over time have fueled decades of suspicion that the South African police had been tipped off about Mandela’s whereabouts and that the likeliest source for that information was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. August 1962 was the height of the Cold War—Mandela’s capture occurred only a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the American intelligence community believed that Mandela and the ANC were secret allies of the Soviets. I asked him about this in 1993.


Courtesy of Richard Stengel<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Richard Stengel</span>
Courtesy of Richard StengelCourtesy of Richard Stengel

STENGEL: Now, Madiba, how, who, how did they know where you were, the police in Howick?

MANDELA: No, I don’t think personally there was anything. I don’t think so. They said it was an American Consul or something like that.

STENGEL: Yes. With some CIA connections.

MANDELA: Yes, quite. That’s what they say. But I don’t think so because unless there was somebody with a CIA connection [INTERRUPTION] and no, I don’t know, I can’t vouch for that, I have no evidence. I know however that I met too many people for a man underground…That’s why I think that it’s not altogether correct that it was the American Consul with CIA connections. But I can’t say that that was not the case.


MANDELA: I have no evidence either way.

STENGEL: So, over the years you never heard any more information?

MANDELA: No, no, no. And I didn’t even inquire.

His answer is beautifully Mandela-like: I have no evidence either way, so I can’t make a judgment—and I didn’t even try to find out. The truth is, he just didn’t really care. He was under arrest and now the battle was in a new arena. He only ever had one direction: forward.

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Even though Mandela didn’t care, I did. I had been listening to these tapes we had made 30 years before because I was working on a 10-part podcast from Audible about Mandela and our work on Long Walk to Freedom. Almost no one had ever listened to the tapes—including me. At the time, I just had transcripts typed up, and I worked from them. For years, the tapes remained in a clear plastic box in storage at my house in New York. While putting together Mandela: The Lost Tapes, I decided that now, after all these years, I would try to get to the bottom of this noteworthy moment in 20th century history. Had the U.S. been involved in the arrest of one of the greatest freedom fighters of the century and, if so, why—and would those involved take responsibility?

Starting in the summer of 2021, with the help of my former colleagues at TIME, I filed a number of Freedom of Information requests with the Central Intelligence Agency to try to confirm what had long been rumored. I will get to that byzantine process in a moment, but first it’s important to tell you what we have learned from journalists and scholars in the years since Mandela’s 1962 capture, his release from prison in 1990, and his death a decade ago. This new information helped guide the FOIA requests.

In 1986, while Mandela was still in prison, when the U.S. Congress was contemplating putting anti-apartheid sanctions on South Africa, the Johannesburg Star printed an un-bylined news story that said, according to a “retired senior police officer,” the South African police had been tipped off to Mandela’s whereabouts by an American diplomat at the U.S. consulate in Durban who was “the CIA operative for that region.” In 1963, the diplomat, according to the Star, had revealed his role while drunk at a party at the Durban apartment of “Mad” Mike Hoare, a well-known Anglo-Irish mercenary.

Four years after the Star article, at the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 when he was about to visit the U.S. and get a hero’s welcome, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a piece reporting that a “retired [American] intelligence official” said that within hours of Mandela’s arrest, a “senior CIA operative” named Paul Eckel walked into his office in Washington and said, “We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be. They have picked him up. It is one of our greatest coups.”

The article quotes former intelligence officials saying the CIA saw Mandela and the ANC as a threat to the stability of the South African government. The U.S. had just signed a military cooperation agreement with South Africa and the country was an important source of uranium and other strategic minerals. More importantly, apartheid South Africa was the West’s most reliable ally against the Soviets, who had strong ties with many other newly independent African states. At the time, the U.S. intelligence presence in South Africa was larger and more sophisticated than the South African government’s. The article quoted a former South African intelligence official named Gerard Ludi saying the CIA had a paid informant in the ANC Durban branch who told the local case officer where Mandela would be.

Then, in 2016, a long-retired CIA officer named Donald Rickard, then 88 years old and ailing, gave an interview to British film director John Irvin in which he said he had informed the South African police about Mandela. Speaking to Irvin for his dramatized documentary, “Mandela’s Gun,” Rickard confirmed that he had been operating undercover as a State Department vice-consul in Durban. He described the city as a “cauldron” of anti-apartheid activity and that the ANC was riling up the city’s substantial Indian community. Here’s what he told Irvin: “Mandela was going to come down and incite the Indians and I found when he was coming down and how he was coming, and he came in a black limousine with a guy sitting in the back as the passenger and he was the driver. That’s where I was involved and that’s where Mandela was caught.”

His details are a bit off, but reporting in the South African and American press at the time and afterward claim Rickard was an American undercover intelligence officer in Durban who was later brought back to the U.S. under a cloud for his drunken candor about CIA actions. A 2018 biography of the mercenary Mike Hoare quotes Hoare confirming Rickard’s story. Rickard was personally unrepentant about assisting in Mandela’s capture. “Mandela was completely under the control of the Soviet Union,” Richard told Irvin. “He was a toy of Moscow. 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…The Soviet Union would have done anything to get its hands on the mineral chest—anything—and Khrushchev said: ‘When we get it we’ll dictate the terms of surrender for the West.’ 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.”

Rickard died two weeks after his confession. His only regret was that he had been indiscrete. Rickard said “the biggest mistake of my life” was boasting about it at Mike Hoare’s party. “I was never promoted again after I came back from South Africa. They were embarrassed that I embarrassed them.”

In my conversations with current and former intelligence officials—all of whom are too young to have been around at that time—they agree that the scenario of the CIA tipping off the South African police is both plausible and likely, and they have no reason to question these reports. It was at a time when the U.S. intelligence community was focused on Africa as a strategic battleground in the Cold War. Mandela’s arrest came eight months after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected head of the Congo whom the CIA believed was a tool of the Soviets. The 1975 Church Committee investigation of intelligence abuses revealed that the CIA had considered assassinating Lumumba. It was the peak of tensions with the Soviet Union and Mandela was regarded not just as a revolutionary, but someone who was at the very least sympathetic to the Soviet point of view. Another piece of information that emerged after Mandela’s death seems to confirm the CIA’s suspicions: on the day of Mandela’s death, both the ANC and the South African Communist Party announced that Mandela had not only been a member of the Communist party, but a member of its central committee. Since then, more scholarship, including from Soviet archives, has emerged to suggest that this was the case.

ANC leader Nelson Mandela raises his hands in response to a bipartisan standing ovation at the completion of his address to a joint meeting of Congress.<span class="copyright">Bettmann Archive/Getty Images</span>
ANC leader Nelson Mandela raises his hands in response to a bipartisan standing ovation at the completion of his address to a joint meeting of Congress.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 2017, in response to a general Freedom of Information request, the CIA declassified some documents containing intelligence about apartheid South Africa from 1961-62, the time of Mandela’s capture. I’ve read through these files, which occasionally mention Mandela, and they accurately describe South Africa’s white supremacist rule and the steadfast opposition of the ANC, which is often referred to as being “communist-dominated.” For our purposes, I found two brief but relevant mentions of Mandela, neither of which have ever been published before by a news organization. In a declassified CIA document marked SECRET and dated May 25, 1961, a little over a year before he was captured, the agency described Mandela as a “probable Communist” who had revived interest in anti-apartheid protest. “An able organizer who reportedly has ample funds at his disposal, [Mandela] seems to have revitalized the ‘Congress movement,’ the Communist-dominated multiracial groups which had been moribund since the banning last year of the African National Congress.”

Then, in a longer memo from the CIA in February of 1962, the year of Mandela’s capture, also marked SECRET, the agency pinpoints Mandela as the head of the ANC guerrilla movement and is clearly aware that Mandela was no longer in South Africa. “Mandela, who lived under cover in South Africa and Basutoland after the failure of the general strike he called last May, has left the country…” No period after the word “country,” and the next sentence is blacked out. This is the first piece of evidence that the CIA was tracking Mandela and knew he was out of the country.

With all of this information in hand, I decided that I would file a Freedom of Information request with the CIA to see if they would confirm any of the details around Mandela’s capture and the agency’s role in it. It was a long shot: Congress gave the CIA some notable exceptions to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. The agency is exempted from providing any information about any CIA operations and will not furnish records of any actual or alleged CIA employee, source, or method. In fact, they will neither confirm nor deny the existence of such records. But at times, in the interest of history and democratic accountability, the CIA has been more transparent about its activities. During the Church Committee hearings, it confirmed that it had illegally targeted American citizens. In 2014, the CIA declassified records showing that after World War II it had used former Nazis as spies in the Cold War.

With the able help of reporter Abby Vesoulis in TIME magazine’s Washington bureau, we filed four separate requests of the CIA. FOIA requests are very formulaic and prescribed. In the letters, we explained why I was seeking this information and we also included links to the articles I’ve cited above.

Here’s the heart of the filing.

Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, we request access to and copies of: Records—including but not limited to reports, intelligence memos, cables—mentioning “Nelson Mandela” or his three aliases (Madiba, Black Pimpernel, and David Motsamayi) that originated from or were received by the Central Intelligence Agency between the years 1957 and 1963.

We also requested access to any reports by or to Donald Rickard that mention Mandela. We also asked for expedited handling which was immediately rejected.

The CIA has an office dedicated to responding to FOIA requests. I will spare you the multiple letters back-and-forth. After several months of emails, including several appeals, we eventually got the following reply from the CIA.

We completed a thorough review of your request and determined that, in accordance with Section 3.6(a) of Executive Order 13526, CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request. The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such records it itself currently and properly classified and is [sic] intelligence sources and methods information protected from disclosure by Section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949 (50 U.S.C. § 3507, as amended), and Section 102A(i)(I) of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. § 3024(i)(I), as amended). Therefore, your request is denied.

Disappointing, but not surprising. I argued in an e-mail response to this that it was in the interest of the CIA to step forward on this issue and explain its actions as being understandable in the context of the Cold War. I didn’t make any headway. The reality is that the U.S. government was years behind the rest of the world in recognizing Mandela’s virtues. Mandela remained on some American terrorist watch lists until 2008—the final year of his presidency. The CIA has not declassified any material related to Mandela’s actual capture. Although the CIA cannot confirm or deny the existence of such records, it’s certain that they exist. This year, the 10th anniversary of Mandela’s death, would be a good time to reveal the back-story.

There is a new competition in Africa and elsewhere between the U.S. and its democratic allies, on the one hand, and the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China. In the UN vote this past fall condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, 19 of the 45 African nations voting on the referendum abstained. In fact, South Africa is currently conducting joint naval exercises with Russia in the Indian Ocean, an exercise that also includes Chinese warships. To win this competition in Africa and elsewhere, America must demonstrate its willingness to be open about its own history.

There are many inside the U.S. government who agree with this position. I know a few of them from my time in government as Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department during the Obama Administration. Over the course of this project, I did speak to several sources close to the intelligence community who suggested that the CIA did in fact play a role in the capture of Nelson Mandela on that winding road in Natal in 1962. For now, however, they just won’t say so publicly.

Mandela always said he was not careful enough after he came back from his African trip for a man underground. While that’s certainly the case, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of the CIA alerting the South African police. Both can be true—and both likely are. Mandela seemed to harbor no hard feelings about this—he was an outlaw, he was seeking to overthrow the South African government which was a reliable ally of the U.S. ‘s against the Soviet Union. He was a realist. From the 50s onward, he always had to factor the Cold War into his strategy. His freedom struggle was always fought in the shadow cast by the Cold War. He did complain to me that America and the West never supported him until he came out of prison, but he also understood that the U.S. saw everything through the lens of the Cold War.

I never asked Mandela about the CIA’s role again. Once the book was finished, our relationship was never again about business. He never talked about it publicly while he was president of South Africa or afterwards. He welcomed America as an ally and supporter of the new South Africa, and gave two addresses to joint sessions of Congress where he received multiple bipartisan standing ovations. For him, it was long gone from his rear-view mirror. But in the last formal interview session I had with Mandela in 1993—which is in Episode 10 of “Mandela: The Lost Tapes,” I asked him about how he was able to work with his enemies and captors. “Your duty is to work with human beings because they are human beings,” he said. “Not because you think they are angels.”

Rick Stengel’s interviews with Mandela are featured in a podcast series Mandela: The Lost Tapes, available from Audible