The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The CIA’s mysterious role in the arrest of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela. (Gareth Davies/Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who would go on to become South Africa's first black president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, spent 27 years in jail after being arrested in the early 1960s. For decades, there have been rumors that the CIA had played an important role in his capture.

This weekend, that speculation was reignited by a report in Britain's Sunday Times, which quoted claims made by alleged ex-CIA agent Donald Rickard that he tipped off authorities in apartheid-led South Africa to the location of the notoriously elusive Mandela, leading to his arrest in 1962.

Rickard made the claim while speaking to John Irvin, director of a new documentary on Mandela's time as an armed rebel. Although the American was not officially associated with the CIA, the Sunday Times reports, he was an agent for the agency while he lived in South Africa as a diplomat. According to Rickard, Mandela had been posing as a chauffeur when he was stopped in Durban and arrested. "I found out when he was coming down and how he was coming ... that's where I was involved and that's where Mandela was caught," Rickard reportedly said.

The American also suggested that Mandela had been a target of the United States because he had been under the influence of the Soviet Union, and Washington feared a bigger conflict with Moscow if South Africa fell into civil war. Rickard apparently felt no regret. “We were teetering on the brink here and it had to be stopped, which meant Mandela had to be stopped," he said. "And I put a stop to it.”

The CIA has not commented on the allegations, and Rickard has died since he gave the interview to Irvin. There has been speculation about CIA involvement in Mandela's arrest for decades, however. In 1990, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted an unnamed U.S. "intelligence officer" as saying that a paid informant within the South African revolutionary leader's political circle had given the CIA information that it passed on to South African authorities. The newspaper reported that the move had caused concern in U.S. diplomatic circles and that rules were put in place under which the State Department would require approval for any attempts to target South African dissidents.

There was later disagreement in the South African press over whether the tip that led to Mandela's arrest had come from the CIA or a junior U.S. diplomat. At the time, Rickard had been named as the diplomat in question. But he later denied the claim in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "It's untrue," he said in 2012. "There's no substance to it."

After he was released from prison in 1990, Mandela became an international icon not just for his commitment to the anti-apartheid movement but also his thoughtful views on reconciliation after apartheid. At the time of his arrest, however, he had led the armed wing of the African National Congress and had helped push the movement into embracing an armed struggle. Mandela was clear that he viewed violent resistance as an acceptable tactic when other options had failed: He had been undergoing military training in Algeria and Ethiopia in the year before he was arrested.

The ANC had received support not only from the Soviet Union, but also from other Western foes such as Cuba and Libya — nations Mandela continued to court once he was freed from prison and became president. In the Cold War era, the United States had viewed the apartheid government as an ally against Communism, with President Ronald Reagan once calling it "essential to the free world." Even long afterward, there was a lingering distrust: The U.S. government had Mandela on a terrorism watch list as late as 2008.

Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 but retired from politics in 1999 at age 80 and died in 2013. Representatives of the ANC responded angrily to Rickard's allegations this week. “That revelation confirms what we have always known, that they are working against [us], even today," ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa said, according to the BBC.

But one of the few to express doubts about the purported CIA involvement in Mandela's arrest, remarkably, was Mandela himself. In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela discusses the rumors that "an American consular official with connections to the CIA had tipped off the authorities" but says he had never seen any evidence to support this idea.

"I cannot lay my capture at their door," he writes. "In truth, I had been imprudent about maintaining the secrecy of my movements."

More on WorldViews