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World

Retired CIA Agent Confirms U.S. Role In Nelson Mandela's 1962 Arrest

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A report in the Sunday Times newspaper has reopened questions about a rumor that's been around for decades, the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962 happened because of a tip from the CIA. A British filmmaker says he talked to a former CIA spy who told authorities where Mandela was at the time. That led to Mandela's arrest and imprisonment for nearly 28 years.

For more on this, we are joined by Aislinn Laing. She's Africa correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper, and she joins us from Cape Town. Welcome to the show.

AISLINN LAING, BYLINE: Hi, thank you.

MCEVERS: First, talk about Mandela's apprehension by authorities in 1962. He was an armed rebel at the time. He was known for being elusive. Why was he wanted?

LAING: He was wanted because he had taken the African National Congress's struggle into a sort of military dimension. He had convinced other members of the party that actually you had to fight fire with fire, and it was no good constantly trying to be peaceful with a regime that was so violent. So he had launched the arms struggle. He had been abroad military training in places including Libya, and he then effectively became public enemy number one for the regime.

MCEVERS: I mean, I think it's important for listeners who might think of Mandela as, you know, this freedom fighter, but at - there was a time when he was considered a communist enemy of the United States.

LAING: Oh, absolutely, yeah. He was designated a terrorist, in fact, for a very long time. I understand that there had to be a special designation made for when he visited the U.S. once he became president because technically he was still classified as a terrorist. However, obviously, he became the world's darling, and I think people through a different prism came to understand that sometimes, you know, drastic measures might have been necessary when you were dealing with a regime like the apartheid regime in South Africa.

MCEVERS: And so now this filmmaker says he interviewed a man who's named Donald Rickard, who has since died. We haven't heard the taped interview, but the report says that Rickard was a diplomat. And he told the film director he was a CIA spy who told the apartheid authorities how to catch Mandela. And Mandela apparently was posing as a chauffeur at the time. Is that correct?

LAING: He was absolutely, yeah. He was posing as a chauffeur in a car with a white member of his party and was driving at night back towards Johannesburg from Natal down on the East Coast.

MCEVERS: And how has this news been received in South Africa?

LAING: I mean, it's, you know - it's generated quite a lot of interest as you would imagine. And it's fascinating, you know. I think enough time has elapsed now that you're not going to see any real fury. Mr. Mandela himself has been dead for a number of years now. But I think there's a kind of poignancy to knowing that after all of this time actually, yes, it was what we all suspected, and it did happen kind of as everyone imagined.

MCEVERS: We should say the CIA told us it has no comment about this. But I wonder does this complicate U.S.-South Africa relations at this time?

LAING: Well, it depends who you speak to. I mean, I spoke to a number of close friends of Mr. Mandela's who were imprisoned with him, who were defending him as lawyers - you know, they say, look, the West played an honorable and dishonorable role in this whole, long saga. Yes, they may have tipped off the authorities to Mr. Mandela's whereabouts, but then later on, the U.S. - it's thought, along with other government - foreign governments pushed the apartheid government not to hang Mr. Mandela for treason.

They visited him in prison when he was on Robben island. The U.S. was one of the first places he visited when he was released from prison, and it's thought that the U.S.'s role in instituting a trade blockade against apartheid South Africa was one of the biggest causes of its demise.

However, the South African authorities, the African National Congress - as it becomes increasingly embattled itself, they are beginning to lash out. And we've seen recently a number of very senior people in the ANC accusing the U.S. of once again fermenting regime change. The U.S. envoy actually at one point was forced to respond to these claims that he was fermenting regime change amid this revelation. Yesterday, the ANC had repeated their claims that it's not just then the U.S. was meddling in our affairs. They're doing it again now.

MCEVERS: That's Aislinn Laing. She's Africa correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper. We reached her via Skype. Thanks so much.

LAING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.