The revelation in Haaretz, the left-wing Israeli daily newspaper, that the Mossad trained Nelson Mandela in Ethiopia throws a new wrinkle into the Mandela story.
The world already knew that Mandela was trained in sabotage and terrorist tactics. This occurred when he left South Africa for Ethiopia to set up a secret underground military apparatus for the African National Congress that would then wage guerrilla attacks against the apartheid regime.
The assumption was that he got his training — as he probably did as well — from the KGB or the GRU, Soviet intelligence agencies that were seeking to establish proxies in Africa loyal to communism and the Soviet Union. But until the story that appeared yesterday, no one knew that Mandela “was trained in weaponry and sabotage by Mossad operatives in 1962, a few months before he was arrested in South Africa.”
The Mossad, the writers reveal, also tried their best to convert their subject — whom they did not realize was Nelson Mandela until he was arrested in South Africa — to the philosophy of Zionism. Mandela, who had support from Jewish Communists at home as well as from other liberal Jews opposed to apartheid, was evidently familiar with both the pre-state Haganah in British-occupied Palestine, and with Zionism in particular.
On October 11, 1962, two months after Mandela’s arrest in South Africa, the Mossad sent a letter to its officers that was stamped “Top Secret”:
The Mossad sent the letter to three recipients: the head of the Africa Desk at the Foreign Ministry, Netanel Lorch, who went on to become the third Knesset secretary; Maj. Gen. Aharon Remez, head of the ministry’s department of international cooperation and the first Israel Air Force commander; and Shmuel Dibon, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia between 1962 and 1966 and former head of the Middle East desk at the Ministry.
The subject line of the letter was “the Black Pimpernel,” in English, the term the South African media was already using for Mandela. It was based on the Scarlet Pimpernel, the nom de guerre of the hero of Baroness Emma Orczy’s early 20th century novel, who saved French noblemen from the guillotine during the French Revolution.
“As you may recall, three months ago we discussed the case of a trainee who arrived at the [Israeli] embassy in Ethiopia by the name of David Mobsari who came from Rhodesia,” the letter said. “The aforementioned received training from the Ethiopians [Israeli embassy staff, almost certainly Mossad agents] in judo, sabotage and weaponry.” The phrase “the Ethiopians” was apparently a code name for Mossad operatives working in Ethiopia.
The report also noted that Mandela greeted everyone with the term “shalom,” and was most familiar with the problem of the world’s Jews and with Israel. He appeared to the Mossad agents as an “intellectual,” but most tellingly “he expressed socialist worldviews and at times created the impression that he leaned toward communism.”
On that, the Mossad had it right. Their training of him did not pay off. From the start, Mandela supported the Soviet Union and its foreign policy, and befriended leftist African tyrannies as well as Yassir Arafat and the PLO.
David Fachler, a writer who found the once-secret document, explains in yet another Haaretz article the motivation for Mandela’s training:
Israel was keen to court the recently decolonized African states and so went out of its way to show solidarity with the latter by consistently voting in UN resolutions condemning the apartheid state and the regime behind it.
This, of course, took place simultaneously with the arms trade between Israel and the South African government, which the military believed was a necessity for guaranteeing the Jewish state’s survival in a hostile area. While the world that is hostile to Israel today always brings up the arms trade with South Africa as an example of how Israel supported apartheid — which is demonstrably not the case — Fanchler makes the following important point:
This episode is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, Mandela was in no way a lone participant in a covert Israeli training program: Israel had established ties with various movements considered subversive by the South African government. A number of Israeli embassies stationed in Africa provided training, advice and transport vehicles to members of the Pan Africanist Congress, including Potlkako Leballo, the head of its militant Poqo wing. Since the PAC was considered anti-Communist and not aligned with the Soviet Union, they were more attractive for a prospect for Israel to deal with than the ANC. Yet what makes this tentative contact with the pre-incarcerated Mandela so fascinating is his willingness to engage with these Israelis in the first place.
On that last point, Fanchler seems naïve. From Mandela’s viewpoint, the Mossad could give him good training, and as Fanchler himself notes, it did not lead to a conversion to Zionism. If the Mossad thought they were using Mandela, he got the better part of the deal, and was using them for his own purposes.
Writing from today’s hindsight, Fanchler criticizes the Likud government that was in power when Mandela was released. An editorial in the pro-Likud Jerusalem Post on June 25, 1991, stated:
If ANC leader Nelson Mandela assumes power in South Africa it will certainly not be a democracy. … If he or his like rule South Africa, the country will be an unmitigated totalitarian disaster and an economic basket case. … If full, non-segregated political equality is achieved in South Africa, it will not be the violent ANC, whose membership is 300,000, that will rule. The Zulus and their followers, numbering six million; the three million coloreds (people of mixed blood) who have been alienated by the ANC’s Communist ideas; the million Indians, and the five million whites will probably form the ruling coalition one day. Only then is there a chance that South Africa will be both free and prosperous.
Although Fanchler, who obviously is a leftist scholar and lawyer, thinks that editorial has been discredited, it is only partially the case. The downfall and end of the Soviet Union gave the new ANC government no Communist power to aid it, and opened up the ANC to move away from what might have been a Soviet-type state in South Africa. But while industry grew and a private sector thrived, the country has in fact fallen to new lows economically and politically, as a new and corrupt black elite rules in a manner that never would have been tolerated by the Afrikaner regime that imposed apartheid on the country. Mandela should be credited with setting the stage for reconciliation and creation of a political democracy. He achieved that, but did not manage to create a truly equitable or thriving social order.
At least, with this new revelation, those who argue that Israelis never were friendly to the South African liberation movement have to reconsider some of their old arguments as well.