Israel’s state archives published a 50-year-old letter from the Mossad revealing that it unknowingly offered paramilitary training to a young Nelson Mandela, along with documents expressing Israeli sympathy for the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1960s.
The newly published Israeli documents from the 1960s, released days after Mandela’s death on Dec. 5, highlight Israeli officials’ voices against apartheid and their attempts to rally international pressure on the South African government to stop the 1964 Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela would be sentenced to life in prison.
In later years, Israel sided with the apartheid government, which has caused ongoing tension with Pretoria.
But perhaps most startling is the memo saying that Mandela received paramilitary training from Israeli handlers in Ethiopia in mid-1962 — without them realizing who he was.
In the 1960s, Israel actively courted Africa’s post-colonial leaders in a search for allies. It sent scientists and other experts across the continent — and the memo suggests that it was running a military training program for fighters, though it is unclear the scope of the program.
In the Oct. 11, 1962 memo, labeled “Top Secret,” a man later identified as Mandela received training in judo, sabotage and light weapons.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, an official organization dedicated to promoting his legacy, has questioned the account. While confirming that Mandela toured African countries that year and even received military training in Ethiopia, it said there was no evidence of any contact with Israelis.
According to other documents released by the archives, Israel maintained a strong interest in Mandela’s well-being after his arrest and throughout the Rivonia Trial, where he was convicted of sabotage in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison.
According to the archives, Israel also had an interest in the case because about one-third of the defendants were Jewish, and Israel feared the case could spread anti-Semitism in South Africa.
Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s state archivist, said there was no political agenda behind the publication of the documents. He said the archives often publicize documents that may be “interesting” in connection to current events, such as Mandela’s death.
But he conceded that staffers may have searched for something more to help ease Israel’s strained relations with South Africa.
“I didn’t ask them. They didn’t ask me. But it’s very likely. Yes. That’s human nature. But was it damage control from the prime minister’s office? Definitely not.”