Mandela Foundation doubts late leader received Mossad training

Review of 1962 diary and notebook yield ‘no evidence of an Israeli connection,’ according to organization dedicated to his memory

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Then-prime minister Ehud Barak, left, with Nelson Mandela in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 19, 1999. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Then-prime minister Ehud Barak, left, with Nelson Mandela in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 19, 1999. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Nelson Mandela Foundation expressed doubt Saturday over reports claiming the late South African icon for which it is named received weapons training by Israeli intelligence officers in 1962.

Based on a top secret Israeli government document, the Haaretz newspaper reported Friday that the former South African president and world-famous anti-apartheid activist, who died earlier this month, had been trained in weaponry and sabotage by Mossad operatives in Ethiopia. Israel’s state archive published the (Hebrew) document for the first time Sunday on its website.

But the foundation, which “collects and curates Mr. Mandela’s personal archive,” according to its website, said it could not locate any evidence in his 1962 diary and notebook — or elsewhere in its collection of personal documents — that would support the claim that he had interacted with Israeli agents.

The Israel State Archives possesses a document that shows that Mandela, using an alias, met with an “unofficial Israeli representative” that year in Addis Ababa, according to an article recently published by the archives. In the early 1960s, Mandela — already a leading opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime, who had been arrested, tried and released several times — left the country and visited several African states, including Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and Ghana.

“The Israeli representative in Ethiopia was not aware of Mandela’s true identity. Instead the two discussed Israel’s problems in the Middle East, with Mandela displaying wide-ranging interest in the subject. Only after his arrest in 1962, on his return to South Africa, did Israel learn the truth,” the Israeli archives stated.

On Friday, Haaretz history writer Ofer Aderet suggested that the “unofficial Israeli representatives” were “almost certainly” Mossad operatives.

Aderet quoted from a top-secret letter the Mossad sent to Israel’s Foreign Ministry on October 11, 1962, which mentions a man — Mandela, who had assumed the alias David Mobsari. This man “received training from the Ethiopians [Israeli embassy staff, almost certainly Mossad agents] in judo, sabotage and weaponry,” the letter read, according to the story in Haaretz.

“The phrase ‘the Ethiopians’ was apparently a code name for Mossad operatives working in Ethiopia,” Aderet wrote.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation questions that assertion. “In 1962 Mr. Mandela received military training from Algerian freedom fighters in Morocco and from the Ethiopian Riot Battalion at Kolfe outside Addis Ababa, before returning to South Africa in July 1962,” the organization said in a statement. “In 2009 the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s senior researcher travelled to Ethiopia and interviewed the surviving men who assisted in Mandela’s training — no evidence emerged of an Israeli connection.”

It is possible, however, that the young Mandela was unaware he was being trained by the Mossad, as Israeli agents might not have identified themselves as such.

Responding to a Times of Israel query, Aderet said his article shed some light on an interesting and important document that has been hidden in Israeli archives for decades, and acknowledged that it offered only a small and partial look behind the curtains of Israel’s most secretive organization. “As long as the Mossad archives is not opened to the public — and there are currently no such plans — we will not know the truth about what happened or did not happen there.”

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