Did Winnie betray Nelson Mandela?

ANC leader believed his wife had divulged to her jealous lover the info that led to his Aug 1962 arrest

A new book has revealed that Nelson Mandela believed it was his wife, Winnie, who had given away his whereabouts while he was underground in South Africa in 1962. Mandela was arrested near Howick in Natal on 5th August 1962 while driving back to Johannesburg from Durban.

The book Prisoner 913: The release of Nelson Mandela" by Jan-Ad Stemmet and Riaan de Villiers, released by Tafelberg today, contains extensive details of the note taking, as well as transcripts of the secret recordings, by the National Party regime, of Mandela’s conversations with visitors during his final years in prison. These were contained in the archived papers of the late former Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee, which are held by the University of the Free State.

In 1989 Mandela was in a state of high distress over Winnie’s activities. These included her infidelities, her refusal to listen to instructions, and the actions of the Mandela United Football Club. This had been involved in several brutal murders, on her command, including of Stompie Seipei, Lolo Sono and Kuki Zwane. Mandela was anxious to get his youngest daughter, Zindzi, away from Winnie’s influence. On 1st September 1989 he met with his older daughter, Zeni and her husband Prince Thumbumuzi Dlamini of Swaziland at his house on the grounds of Victor Verster prison. The two were out from the United States at the time and he wished for Zindzi to join them there when they returned.

The Commissioner of Prisons, General Willie Willemse, sent Coetsee a summary of this conversation. A covering note mentioned that “Dr B.” – presumably Dr Niel Barnard, the head of the National Intelligence Service – had also been informed. The transcript of the conversation states that “913” (which was Mandela’s prison number) had indicated to his guests that they were being listened in upon. He had then told Zeni and Muzi, that Winnie “has no respect for the community, the ANC, the family, or himself, and also not for herself. He talks about Winnie who went around with married men. This is why 913 says she has no respect. A wife who today goes with a married man and tomorrow with someone else is a wife of loose morals. Winnie is such a person.”

Mandela related that when he visited London, after going underground in 1962, he had met Mary Benson who had told him that Winnie had attended a concert with a married man. “913 says she also had relationships with other men”. He then said he had told Winnie “that he was going to Durban and was arrested in the course of his return. 913 says that it was clear to him that the police knew that he was in Durban. 913 says Winnie had spoken about where he was. She (W) had told this to someone with whom she had an intimate relationship. This person wanted her and 913 was betrayed. Winnie was arrested and she had said where 913’s comrades were – there is no doubt about this. 913 says Fikile Bam was also arrested as a result of Winnie’s relationships with informants.”

According to Anthony Sampson’s biography, Mandela had left South Africa on his African tour on 10 January 1962. During his time out of the country he had spent ten days in London where had had dinner, along with Oliver Tambo, at the apartment of Mary Benson. He had been called back to South Africa from Ethiopia in July, where he was undergoing guerrilla training, and been driven across the Botswana border by the gay theatre director and SACP and MK member, Cecil Williams, in his Austin Westminister car.

The two had arrived back at Lilieslief Farm in Rivonia at dawn on the 24th July, and the following day Winnie and the children had visited for a brief reunion. That evening the ANC National Working Committee met, where Mandela conveyed the concerns of the African leaders he had met on his travels, over the links of the ANC with whites and Indians. He had argued that the ANC would need to assert itself within the Congress alliance. On the night of 26th July Mandela had driven down to Durban, with Williams, in order to report to Chief Albert Luthuli about this matter.

In Durban Mandela met with Ismail and Fatima Meer, as well as Monty Naicker of the Indian Congress. He had then driven to Groutville where he had met with Luthuli. On Saturday, 4th August, he met with MK Regional Command, including Ronnie Kasrils, Billy Nair and Bruno Mtolo (who would later turn state witness at Rivonia). Later that same evening, at the home of the photojournalist G. R. Naidoo, where he was staying, he was joined by Ismail and Fatima Meer, Monty Naicker, and J. N. Singh for a “welcome-home and going-away” party.

The following afternoon he set off back to Johannesburg with Williams. In the original 1976 prison manuscript version of his autobiography Mandela relates how, just after they had passed Howick, “a big Ford car, full of white men, shot past and signalled us to stop. I instinctively looked at the back and noticed two other cars full of whites. I knew that that was the end and that for the time being I would be out of action.”

Mandela writes that a tall man with a stern expression on his face had stepped out of the front car and came over to them. “He was unshaven and untidy and left me with the impression that he had been expecting us for several days. He introduced himself as Sergeant Forster of the Pietermaritzburg police, produced a warrant and asked me who I was. I naturally give him my cover name W David Motsamai. After posing a few other questions which I parried, he snapped, ‘Ach, you are Nelson Mandela, and this is Cecil Williams.’ He ordered us to return to Pietermaritzburg.”

Mandela recounts that in his cell that night he had realised that the police had been “tipped off about my whereabouts and had been aware of the fact that I was in Durban”. Though the Security Branch suspected he was back in the country, and would have expected him to visit Luthuli at some point, “I felt that on this occasion the police were working on definite information and that someone had betrayed. Who was it? Could it be someone in Durban? Someone from Johannesburg? A person in the movement? Or a close friend of the family? Speculation without facts is futile and soon the mental and physical exhaustion, coupled with the shock of disaster and disappointment put me to sleep.”

Mandela would initially be sentenced to five years in jail by a magistrate, but this was subsequently extended to life imprisonment following his conviction at the Rivonia Trial. He would only be released from jail twenty-seven years later.

In June 1986 the United States House of Representatives had passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The following month The Star newspaper in Johannesburg reported that Mandela had been shopped by the Americans. His movements had been disclosed to the police by a CIA officer and American diplomat – soon named as Donald Rickard - operating out of the US Consulate in Durban. He had then spilled the beans about his involvement at a drunken dinner party at Mike Hoare’s apartment. In exchange for some information he was seeking he told Colonel Bester, the head of the Natal police, the “date, time and route Mandela would be taking”. (James Sanders, Apartheid’s Friends, pp 17 – 18) For this breach of tradecraft Rickard had soon thereafter been sent back to Washington DC in disgrace. Rickard had received no further promotions before being retired from the Agency in 1978.

CIA involvement was later confirmed by reporting in the American press, shortly before Mandela’s visit to the United States in mid-1990. An article quoted an unidentified retired official who said that a senior C.I.A. officer, Paul Eckel, had told him shortly after Mandela's arrest: “We have turned Mandela over to the South African Security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be.”

A few years ago Sanders tracked down Rickard to his home in Pagosa Springs Colorado on behalf of the filmmaker John Irvin who was working on a documentary on Mandela. Shortly before his death at the age of 88, in 2016, Rickard was interviewed by Irvin. “Mandela was going to come down and incite the Indians”, he said, “and I found out how he was coming, and he came in a black limousine with a guy sitting the back seat as the passenger and he was the driver. That’s where I was involved and that’s where Mandela was caught.”

He added: “Mandela was completely under the control of the Soviet Union. He was a toy of Moscow. He could have incited a war in South Africa, the United States would have to get involved, grudgingly, and things could have gone to hell. The Soviet Union would have done anything to get its hands on the mineral chest – anything – and [Soviet leader Nikita] Khruschev said: ‘When we get it we’ll dictate the terms of surrender for the West.’ 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.” (James Sanders, “How the CIA Trapped Mandela”, Sunday Times London 25 May 2016)

Rickards’ assessment, though it may appear crude and paranoid in a post-Cold War age, is more accurate than the modern Western mythology around Mandela and the ANC in the 1960s is willing to allow. Though Mandela publicly denied his communist party membership at the time of the Rivonia Trial up until his death in 2013, all indications are that he had joined the SACP in the mid-1950s, at around the same time as Walter Sisulu had done so. Unlike Sisulu, who joined the Central Committee in 1956, Mandela had initially not taken up a senior position in the party, only joining the Central Committee in 1960. By the early 1960s the SACP was in almost complete control of the Congress movement. As the Party would report to Moscow at the time: “All important positions and direction in the Congress and in other organisations are occupied by members of our Party. In the African National Congress, this is particularly the case.”

It has remained a mystery as to who it was within the movement who had divulged details of Mandela’s movements. Rickard himself refused to disclose to Irvin who had tipped him off, saying only he had met “lots of people after dark in strange places and they would tell me things and that’s where I learnt he was coming down”.

In 1962 the Security Branch circulated disinformation that Mandela had been betrayed by his white and Indian comrades, angry at his push to give a more Africanist face to the Congress alliance. Within South African Communist Party circles suspicions around the ‘Judas in their ranks’ fell upon Cecil Williams himself. After he escaped South Africa he did not take up a prominent role in either the Party or the anti-apartheid movement.

Mandela’s autobiography, as published in 1993, was based upon his prison manuscript. It was extensively revised and updated by his “ghost” Richard Stengel, with an American audience in mind. In this version Mandela said he did not believe that GR Naidoo had been the source for his movements. Suggestions in the press that he had been betrayed by his comrades were also “malicious mischief”. The book also said that Winnie had been invited to open the annual conference of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress, and at his instigation had “repudiated these rumours in no uncertain terms. The newspapers were filled with stories of her beauty and eloquence. ‘We shall not waste time looking for evidence as to who betrayed Mandela,’ she told the audience. ‘Such propaganda is calculated to keep us fighting one another instead of uniting to combat Nationalist oppression.’”

The same section of the book added that Mandela had never “seen any reliable evidence as to the truth” of the claim of the CIA (and Rickard’s) involvement. He further went to great lengths to take responsibility onto his own shoulders. He had been “imprudent about maintaining the secrecy of my movements” and it “was a wonder in fact that I wasn’t captured sooner”.

Mandela subsequently passed up many opportunities to identify who it was who had betrayed him. In his biography Anthony Sampson recounts that Mandela had “shown no interest in finding the culprit afterwards”.

As this latest revelation indicates this was not because Mandela was uninterested, but because he already knew - or thought he knew - who it had been, and he had no desire to see this publicly revealed.