Mandela and the Mossad: How Israel Courted Black Africa

The unknown story of how Israel secretly trained anti-apartheid activists in 'judo, sabotage and weaponry,' including Nelson Mandela himself.

David Fachler
David Fachler
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David Fachler
David Fachler

In all the exhaustive coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death and his equivocal attitude towards the Jewish State, one episode that sheds new light on this relationship has been waiting in Israel's National Archive to be told.

We need to go back to the early 1960s. 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 was not without consequence for the South African Jewish community, who found themselves the recipients of the wrath of Prime Minister Verwoerd and his Foreign Minister Eric Louw, yet it did endear Israel to the anti-apartheid movements. The ANC itself, then led by Oliver Tambo, penned a letter from London to Israel’s President Yitzhak Ben Zvi thanking him for Israel’s actions at the United Nations.

Roughly three months before Tambo dispatched this letter, on 11 October, 1962, a letter was sent from what is likely to be a Mossad operative, Y. Ben Ari at Israel’s embassy in Ethiopia to the Israeli Foreign Office Africa desk containing the following information:

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 aforementioned received training from the Ethiopian [Israeli embassy staff, almost certainly Mossad agents] in judo, sabotage and weaponry.

He greeted our men with “Shalom”, was familiar with the problems of Jewry and of Israel and gave the impression of being an intellectual. The staff tried to make him into a Zionist.

It now emerges from photographs that have been published in the press about the arrest in South Africa of the “Black Pimpernel” that the trainee from Rhodesia used an alias, and the two men are one and the same.

Before coming to Ethiopia he was in Accra (where he met Nkrumah and his advisors), Lagos and Tanganyika. In Ethiopia he was trained in various kinds of light weaponry (including Israeli). In conversations with him he expressed socialist worldviews, and at times created the impression that he leaned towards communism.

He showed an interest in the methods of the Haganah and other Israeli underground movements.

In response, 13 days later, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that the 'Black Pimpernel' was in fact Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who the year before had arranged a nationwide strike and thereafter went into hiding. 'Black Pimpernel' was the code name for Nelson Mandela used by the South African authorities who were hunting him. Curiously they also mention that he was considered by ANC supporters and many others as the most important person in his movement, despite the fact that Albert Luthuli was still the elected president-general of the ANC.

So, Nelson Mandela, under an alias, learnt weapons and sabotage techniques from embassy staff who were likely Mossad agents, whilst being gently prompted to become a supporter of the Jewish state.

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.

The golden era of cooperation between Israel and African liberation movements continued through the 1960s. Golda Meir, as Foreign Minister and ardent admirer of black Africa, called for leniency in the Rivonia trial and for the commutation of any death sentence.

The Israeli National Archives' public relations office, and the Israeli press in its wake, have been careful to point out Golda Meir's actions and the public face of Israel's support for anti-apartheid activists. While this is an admirable instance of humanitarian activism, however, it hardly tells the whole story. Israel's history with South Africa is marked not only by cultivating relationships with those opposed to apartheid, but also by exacerbating tensions with these very same groups and individuals after the Israel: liberation movements' honeymoon came to an end.

A historian should not hypothesize as to what would have happened had Mandela not been caught and tried by the South African authorities. Nor what would have been the consequences had Israel, following its abandonment by Black Africa in the 1970s, not fostered such warm ties with the Apartheid regime. Yet this episode does go some way in showing that the tensions that now exist were not inescapable.

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 placed Israel in a quandary. After almost two decades of actively supporting the apartheid regime it had to come to terms with the fact that South Africa was reversing course and was undergoing a transitional phase which would inevitably lead to the end of white rule in the Republic.

Yet Israel's ambassador to South Africa at the time, Zvi Gov-Ari, appeared to be ill-equipped to adjust himself to the new situation. Thus instead of trying to cultivate ties with the recently unbanned ANC, Israel’s representative in Pretoria made the double faux pas of criticizing Mandela, the movement’s de facto leader, while at the same time expressing a preference for Mangosuthu Buthelezi, widely perceived as a black puppet for the Nationalist Government. It is perhaps no wonder that Israel Maisels, a major Jewish and Zionist leader and one of the lead defense attorneys in the Rivonia trial, did not think highly of the ambassador, referring to him as that “bloody stupid fellow” (quoted in Cutting through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists [1997], edited by Immanuel Sutner).

Back in Israel, the venerable English-language Jerusalem Post, which at that time was doing its best to show how loyal it was to the Likud government, was probably reflecting the government's opinion when it predicted on June 25, 1991 that “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." Further underlining its dire predictions, the newspaper declared:

“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”.

No one knows whether Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his cabinet honestly thought that Mandela had no political future in South Africa, but its persistent backing of the old regime only came to an end with the ascension to power of Yitzhak Rabin and his Labor Party. With the appointment of Dr. Alon Liel, a seasoned diplomat and close ally of Yossi Beilin, one of Israel’s most vociferous critics of the white regime, Israel managed to salvage some of the damage by cultivating ties with the ANC.

Indeed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of 1993 provided Israel with an even greater opportunity to reconcile itself with an ANC now in government which was both supportive and thankful for the prospects of a peaceful resolution between the Jewish State and its Palestinian counterpart. Sadly, as the Oslo process fell apart, relations between Israel and the Republic continued to be strained, as they do to this day.

With Mandela’s death, Israel once again had the opportunity of mending at least some of the damage it had caused in the past, by sending a top-level delegation which would include at least the head of government or the head of state. It failed, opting instead to send the Knesset's speaker. Unfortunately Israel has shown, more from folly than malice, that it serially misunderstands the new South Africa, and the repercussions will be felt not only in the international diplomatic arena but also by the Jewish community of South Africa itself.

David Fachler has a Masters in Law from South Africa (LLM) and a Masters in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University, Jerusalem (MA).He is contactable at davidfachler@yahoo.com

Mandela: Showed interest in the methods of the Haganah and other Israeli underground movements.Credit: AP
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