(Courtesy Israel State Archives
On Thursday 5 December 2013, Nelson
Mandela, leader of the fight for equal rights for blacks in South
Africa and the first president of post apartheid South Africa, passed
. Mandela was considered one of the leading fighters for human
rights in our generation, and his death brought a wave of mourning and
tributes around the world.
To mark Mandela's passing, the Israel State Archives presents a publication
including six documents on Israel's attitude towards the African
National Congress leader in the 1960s. The documents focus on Israel's
mobilization in the international protest campaign to prevent the South
African government from imposing the death sentence on Mandela during
the Rivonia Trial in 1964. Israel also called on South Africa to stop
the trial and to abolish the apartheid regime.
The Israel State
Archives holds a document (not released for publication) showing that
Mandela (under an assumed identity) met with an unofficial Israeli
representative in Ethiopia as early as 1962. He had fled South Africa in
1961, 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.
In the coming weeks, the Israel State
Archives will release a collection of documents about Israeli-South
African relations between1961-1967. This collection is a part of a wider
one on Israel's relations with Africa during this period. Several
documents relate to Nelson Mandela and Israel's sympathy for his
struggle, and they are presented here. All are in Hebrew except Document Number 3
of these documents deal with the Rivonia Trial, and Israel's reaction
to it. The accused were 18 leaders of the African National Congress
party. The defendants, who were arrested at a farm near the Johannesburg
suburb of Rivonia, were charged with plotting armed sabotage of the
apartheid government. Mandela, who had already been imprisoned on other
charges, was not among those arrested, but his name was added to the
list of defendants in the trial. The South African government was
interested in a show trial which would discredit the African National
Congress. The prosecution demanded the death sentence for the leading
defendants, including Mandela.
The Israeli government became
interested in the trial for several reasons. They were particularly
concerned that the large number of Jews arrested (about a third of the
defendants) in the incident would spark antisemitism in South Africa.
The second reason for Israeli interest in the trial was its desire to
strengthen ties with black African nations, who naturally rejected the
apartheid regime in South Africa. Another contributing factor to
Israel's stand was then Foreign Minister Golda Meir's opposition to
racism and discrimination. She herself invested a large amount of time
and attention to developing ties with African countries.
Meir instructed senior Foreign Ministry officials to prepare a manifesto
by leading intellectuals criticizing the trial. The Foreign Ministry
appealed to philosopher Martin Buber to lend his voice to the campaign.
Foreign Ministry Assistant Director-General Ehud Avriel asked Hanan
Aynor, of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in New York, to
appeal to author Haim Hazaz to join Buber in signing a declaration on
behalf of the Rivonia defendants. Buber and Hazaz's declaration
was published on May 20, 1964. They called on the South African government to release the defendants. "You will not silence their voices by hanging them. Their words will ring a thousand times more loudly if you do,"
the two wrote.
June 12, 1964 the defendants were sentenced. Six of them including
Mandela were sentenced to life imprisonment – but not to the death
Over the years the close relations between Israel and
South Africa drew criticism by those who saw them as expressing Israeli
support for South Africa's racist apartheid government. The documents to
be released, however, reveal that relations between the two countries
in the 1960s were tense, problematic and complicated, and include many
examples of Israeli criticism of the South African government.