One of the top news stories in South Africa this week has been the controversy over new allegations that Nelson Mandela received training from Israel’s Mossad spy agency–albeit inadvertently–when he received military training in Ethiopia in 1962. After the then-banned African National Congress (ANC) decided to launch a military wing, Mandela traveled widely to receive training, and it turns out Israel may have helped him.
That should not be a particular surprise. Israel was deeply involved in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, and saw the emerging post-colonial nations as potential allies. South Africa was repeatedly irked by Israel’s anti-apartheid votes in the UN. Golda Meir, who would go on to become Israel’s prime minister, devoted much of her time as foreign minister to cultivating those relationships with a passionate commitment to Africa’s cause.
Moreover, Mandela himself acknowledged that his military force, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), had been partly inspired by Menachem Begin’s paramilitary force, the Irgun, which fought the British and the Palestinian Arabs in the years before Israeli independence. Later, in the 1970s, Israel secretly aligned with the apartheid regime, and only joined international sanctions in 1987. But the early connection was real, and deep.
That is what today’s South African elite would like to deny. The ruling ANC, the South African media, and the country’s left-wing social movements all cling to anti-Israel postures. Essentially, they have bought the anti-Israel narrative that the Jewish state practices a form of contemporary apartheid, and so must be subjected to the same campaign of isolation–not even to achieve a two-state solution, but a one-state solution, if possible.
Mac Maharaj, who worked with Mandela throughout the struggle against apartheid, also denied a link: “It never happened that Mandela received training from Mossad or the Israelis. He was trained by Ethiopians at a military base outside Addis Ababa.” The Nelson Mandela Foundation has also vigorously denied any connection between him and the Mossad. But it is basing that claim on its own archive of Mandela’s private papers.
The evidence for the Mossad-Mandela link comes from newly declassified documents in the Israeli government archive. A letter reveals that Mandela, using the name “David Mosbari,” had approached the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia and greeted diplomats with the Hebrew salutation, “Shalom,” which he had undoubtedly picked up from colleagues in South Africa. It was only much later that the Israelis discovered who “Mosbari” really was.
The documents were uncovered in the course of research by David Fachler, a graduate student in Israel who was born in South Africa. There may yet be more evidence to come, despite the consternation the story is causing Israel’s local critics. The local media are now spinning the story as an attempt to restore Israel’s reputation, while Israel’s ambassador to South Africa has evidently played down the controversy. But the truth is what it is.
Life is complex, and politics makes strange bedfellows–though Israel and the anti-apartheid movement were not then as estranged as they would later be, once the Soviet Union pushed the ANC and the African states in general into the anti-Israel bloc. The facts of history do not always fit neatly into today’s political templates, and it is best to let them speak for themselves. Perhaps they can help to temper our cruder partisan passions.