As It Happens

Former CIA spy says his tip landed Nelson Mandela in prison

A major political confession revealed — on film. A CIA operative confesses to leading South African authorities to arrest Nelson Mandela in 1962.
Nelson Mandela, charged with treason, leaves court in Pretoria, South Africa in 1958. He would eventually serve 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid (JURGEN SCHADEBERG/AP)

There had long been rumours that the CIA was involved in Nelson Mandela's arrest. Now a former CIA operative has taken responsibility in a new documentary film.

I think he felt justified. He believed Nelson Mandela was a communist- John Irvin

In 1962 Donald Rickard was the U.S. vice-consul in Durban. But he was no mere diplomat. Rickard was also fighting communists for the CIA. One of his chief targets was the young ANC leader who would be held for 27 years before becoming the founding father of post-apartheid South Africa.

South African president Nelson Mandela speaks at a conference in the early 1960s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Hulton Archive/Getty )

Donald Rickard told his story to filmmaker John Irvin, shortly before his death this March. The interview is included in Irvin's film, "Mandela's Gun". It screened this week at the Cannes Film Festival.

"He told me that he had prior knowledge of the car Mandela was driving … and he also knew the route he would be taking back to Johannesburg. And he said 'I had to stop him,'" Irvin tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Irvin continues, "I think he felt justified. He believed Nelson Mandela was a communist, and he's on the record as saying 'he was the most dangerous communist leader outside the USSR' … in the context of the cold war, it was a time of acute paranoia.'"

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 1990 file photo, Nelson Mandela, left, and his wife Winnie, raise clenched fists as they walk hand-in-hand from the Victor Verster prison near Cape Town, South Africa. (Greg English/Associated Press)

When asked if Rickard felt any guilt for the 27 years Mandela spent in prison, Irvin says the former CIA operative had a clear conscience

"He thought he (Mandela) was a great leader," Irvins say. "And he thought prison had been beneficial in many ways. He was less prone to any sense of guilt."

For more on this story, take a listen to our full interview with John Irvin.


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