In this 1997 photo, Mandela joins hands with Libyan leader Gaddafi in front of a Libyan home destroyed by a U.S. fighter strike a decade earlier. Image Credit: Getty Images

American involvement in African affairs has always been a fact of modern politics but it remains hard to prove as there is usually no evidence to back up claims.

A recent report in the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that a tip off from a CIA spy to South African authorities resulted in Mandela’s arrest in 1962. Donald Rickard, a former CIA operative made the confession to John Irvin, a British film director confirming his involvement in the arrest of Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s greatest political icons. Rickard died two weeks after the interview with Irvin, in March this year. He had worked for the CIA until 1978. American involvement in African affairs has always been a fact of modern politics but it remains hard to prove as there is usually no evidence to back up claims. The revelations have resulted in the fresh demand for the declassification of documents relating to Mandela’s arrest.

In his interview with Irvin, Rickard took an unapologetic tone and identified Mandela as a “communist toy”. He argued that, “He could have incited war in South Africa, the United States would have to get involved, grudgingly, and things would have gone to hell.” The major fear must have been a Russian-US showdown as until then, the two powers’ combat had largely been cold and implicit. Active warfare had to be avoided at all costs. Mandela therefore seemed like a real threat of war and had to be eliminated from the equation.

“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.”

Until Rickard, Mandela had been elusive thus earning him the nickname “the black Pimpernel”. He would use disguises and aliases to evade security officials. The most popular of the aliases is David Motsamayi which he said in his autobiography was “the name of one of my former clients”.

Rickard said, “I found when he was coming down and how he was coming…that’s where I was involved and that’s where Mandela was caught.”

Ziziz Kodwa, the national spokesperson of Mandela’s ANC showed that there was no surprise there as the involvement of the United States had always been something known in the informal domain. He said, “We always knew there was always collaboration between some Western countries and the apartheid regime.” He further claimed they are trying even now to effect regime change in South Africa saying, “We have recently observed that there are efforts to undermine the democratically elected ANC government. They never stopped operating here.”

Rickard therefore helped confirm the observations as more than just “young government paranoia”.

What happened on the day Mandela was arrested?
Mandela’s long time lawyer, George Bizos revealed that Mandela had “unwisely” attended a party held in his honor where there may have been informants who set up a trap for him. Bizos told the Telegraph, “We never knew for certain that (the CIA) were involved but it was thought to be a probability because of the ideology of the United States at the time. I don’t think President John F Kennedy’s government was particularly pleased with Nelson Mandela.”

On the fateful day, Mandela was in his disguise as a chauffeur traveling from Durban to Johannesburg with fellow political activist Cecil Williams. He had just completed a series of foreign visits and had come for the party Bizos referred to.

In his autobiography, Mandela said, “Cecil and I were engrossed in discussions of sabotage plans as we passed through Howick, 20 miles North-West of Pietermaritzburg. At Cedara, a small town just past Howick, I noticed a ford V-8 filled with white men shoot past us on the right….I knew in an instant that my life on the run was over; my seventeen months of freedom were about to end.”

Mandela was then arrested but refused to admit to his name. He still identified himself as David Motsamayi. He wrote, “I was upset and agitated. Someone had tipped the police off about my whereabouts. They had known I was in Durban and that I would be returning to Johannesburg.”

Fifty-four years later, the world now knows who tipped off the police. It was Donald Rickard, a CIA operative. Mandla Mandela, heir of Nelson Mandela denounced the United States’ involvement saying the disclosure by Rickard had put an end to decades of denial that “the USA put its imperial interests above the struggle for liberation of millions of people”. He called on the US President, Barack Obama to apologize and disclose all events leading up to Nelson Mandela’s arrest.