After a long period of ill-health Nelson Mandela, former leader of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe and President of post-apartheid South Africa, has died at the age of 95. An age he might well have thought impossible during the decades-long armed struggle against the White-minority regime in the Black-majority nation during which he risked all as both a guerrilla leader and a political prisoner.
I’ve written before about Nelson Mandela’s relations with Ireland, in particular the political connections between the African National Congress (ANC) and Sinn Féin (SF), as well as the long-standing military connections between the ANC’s guerrilla wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). From the late 1970s onwards the IRA provided military assistance and advice to MK, including sending IRA Volunteers to the region where they were active in Angola and South Africa itself. This alliance was recognised amongst militant British Unionists in the north-east of Ireland and Britain where Frank Miller, a senior Ulster Unionist Party politician, dismissed Mandela as a “black Provo” (in other words a member of the Provisional IRA or “Provos”). Miller represented a view common amongst the British establishment which saw no difference between the ANC and MK on one hand and Sinn Féin and the IRA on the other. All were “dangerous” left-wing, anti-colonial movements inimical to Britain’s interests. Indeed many members of the British minority community in Ireland felt a close affinity with the Boer minority in Apartheid-era South Africa: a centuries-old colonial minority trying to preserve their own political, economic and military hegemony over an indigenous majority.
In Britain the conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher regularly impeded sanctions against the anti-democracy regime in South Africa, despite the condemnations of the international community and domestic critics. She regarded the ANC as a “…typical terrorist organisation” and later explained on a visit to South Africa that her refusal to meet the imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela was simple: “…the Prime Minister of England does not talk to terrorists”. These sentiments were widely echoed throughout her government with Conservative Party conferences proposing motions calling for Mandela to be executed while members wore suits with collars, ties and lapel badges emblazoned with the words “Hang Nelson Mandela” (one of Thatcher’s closest political allies, Sir Teddy Taylor, stated that Mandela “…should be shot”, a view Thatcher never disassociated herself from).
While some media observers were puzzled by Thatcher’s adamant, and at times politically damaging, opposition to the ANC the revelations of recent years point to more complex motives for her opposition in the fight against apartheid as reported in the Irish Times:
“THE IRA helped carry out one of the biggest bomb attacks against the South African apartheid government in the early 1980s, according to the memoirs of former senior ANC activist and politician Kader Asmal.
The former ANC cabinet minister and Trinity law professor, who died earlier this year, reveals in his memoirs published this week how volunteers recruited from Ireland carried out reconnaissance on one of the country’s most strategic installations – the Sasol oil refinery in Sasolburg, near Johannesburg, before it was bombed on June 1st, 1980.
The attack was carried out by Umkhonto we Sizwe, better known as MK, the military wing of the ANC, and struck a major blow against the apartheid state at the time.
In his book, Politics in my Blood , Asmal, founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM), also claims Gerry Adams provided the IRA volunteers to carry out the mission after he contacted go-between Michael O’Riordan, then general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland.
“I went to see the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O’Riordan, who was a man of great integrity and whom I trusted to keep a secret. He in turn contacted Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin and it was arranged that two military experts would come to Dublin to meet two MK personnel and take them to a safe place for two weeks of intensive training. I believe the expertise the MK cadres obtained was duly imparted to others in the ANC camps in Angola.”
Asmal says he was later approached again by the MK high command who wanted two people to conduct a reconnaissance operation on the feasibility of attacking Sasol, South Africa’s major oil refinery, vital to the maintenance of the apartheid state.
“Once again, I arranged the task with Adams of Sinn Féin, through the mediation of O’Riordan. Though I no longer recall the names of the persons who volunteered, if indeed I ever knew them, they laid the ground for one of the most dramatic operations carried out by MK personnel.”
Recalling the 1980 attack as one of the most daring acts of military insurgency in the struggle against apartheid, he writes:
“. . . while the damage to the refinery was, according to the apartheid regime, relatively superficial, the propaganda value and its effect on the morale of the liberation movement were inestimable. Yet only Louise (my wife) and I knew the attack on Sasolburg was the result of reconnaissance carried out by members of the IRA.”
He added: “The attack on Sasolburg had nothing to do with the IAAM, and nobody knew about the story behind it except Louise and me.
“When the plant blew up, we were so excited I suppose some of the other IAAM people must have wondered if we had any connection or involvement.”’
Many years later the ANC played a crucial role supporting Sinn Féin in the Peace Process of the 1990s and early 2000s between the belligerent parties in Ireland and Britain some of which was revealed by the Observer newspaper:
“One of the last ANC militants to lay down arms after the war against apartheid played a leading role in convincing the IRA to move to its historic compromise over arms decommissioning last weekend, The Observer has learnt.
Sathyandranath ‘Mac’ Maharaj held a secret meeting with IRA leaders, including the hardline Marxist Brian Keenan, in Belfast in February, shortly after the British Government suspended the short-lived power-sharing executive. The one-time Communist ANC activist told Keenan and three other members of the IRA’s Army Council to ‘be creative’ over the arms issue.
According to republican sources, Maharaj’s advice helped propel the organisation towards its unprecedented offer to put arms beyond use and allow independent observers to monitor its weapons dumps. Maharaj was accompanied on the trip by Leon Wessels, a white member of the Cabinet who ran Pretoria’s security apparatus, but the former held the talks with the IRA leadership.
Maharaj is understood to have reported back to his ANC colleague and former trade union leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, that a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland deadlock could be achieved. Ramaphosa has since been appointed as one of the two observers to verify IRA arms dumps are sealed and guns have been put beyond use.
It is suggested Sinn Fein MPs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness asked the ANC leadership to help them convince IRA sceptics to launch an initiative to break the deadlock.
Maharaj, like Keenan in Ireland, was initially sceptical about the politics of compromise at the end of apartheid. He was number three in the ANC’s military wing and laid down his arms only after Nelson Mandela had convinced him attacks on the security forces would damage reconciliation with the white community.
The IRA looks upon the ANC as ‘brothers’ in the struggle for national liberation and for more than two decades has maintained political links with the South African movement. However, there were never any formal military ties.”
Of course we can now see that there were very formal ties between Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Irish Republican Army. In fact the struggle between Irish Republicans and Apartheid South Africa went much further, for it involved Boer-ruled South Africa directly engaging in state-sponsored terrorism in Ireland through the supply of weapons, explosives and money to the British terrorist factions in the north-east of the country during the 1980s and ’90s, factions with close ties to senior Unionist political leaders and the British intelligence services. As the report above continues:
“In the Eighties it was other South Africans who helped fuel the Ulster conflict. Apartheid agents indirectly armed both the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force 13 years ago, enabling the two loyalist organisations to intensify their violence up until the 1994 ceasefires.
Douglas Berndhart, an American-born agent for Boss, apartheid’s secret intelligence agency, put loyalists in touch with a Lebanese gunrunner, Joe Fawzi, in 1987. The UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance [ASF: a terrorist grouping founded by the DUP, a party now led by Peter Robinson joint-first minister of the North of Ireland] paid Fawzi around £300,000 (stolen in a bank robbery in Portadown) for a large consignment of weapons, including hundreds of AK47s that had fallen into the hands of Lebanese Christian militias. These weapons had been captured from the retreating PLO, which was expelled from south Lebanon in 1982.
Ulster loyalists made two further attempts to gain arms directly from the apartheid regime. The UDA sent Brian Nelson to Johannesburg in the same year to make contact with Ulster expatriates living in South Africa who supported the loyalist cause. The trip came to nothing, probably because Nelson was an agent working inside the UDA.
A more serious bid to procure weapons took place a year later when Ulster Resistance, founded but later disowned by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, tried to sell surface-to-air missile systems to apartheid agents in Paris. French intelligence arrested three Ulster men, Samuel Quinn, James King and Noel Lyttle, at the Hilton hotel as they were about to make contact with South African diplomat Daniel Storm.
Storm had offered Ulster Resistance weapons in return for stolen missile systems manufactured at Shorts aircraft factory in east Belfast. The apartheid government wanted the missiles to shoot down MiG aircraft flown by Cuban pilots in battles between Angolan Marxist forces and the South African Defence Forces. Ulster Resistance’s botched attempt to buy weapons from the Pretoria regime resulted in France and Britain expelling six South African embassy staff, including Storm, from their Paris and London missions.
The political leaders of the loyalist organisations that smuggled those Lebanese armaments into Northern Ireland have so far refused to follow the IRA’s lead and offer up a similar arms inspection deal. John White, a former UDA prisoner and now chief spokesman for the Ulster Democratic Party, said he would have preferred all paramilitary organisations voluntarily to destroy their arsenals.”
The obituary of the notorious British Intelligence agent Brian Nelson provides even more details on those who connived in facilitating the support of Apartheid South Africa for the British ethnic minority in Ireland, the close involvement of the British military and intelligence services, and the years of separatist terrorism that stemmed from that:
“Brian Nelson, who has died of a brain haemorrhage aged 55, features in today’s report by the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens. In the early 1990s, Stevens, then a relatively lowly deputy chief constable in Cambridgeshire, was asked to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between the British army and Protestant paramilitaries, notably the Ulster Defence Association.
He soon came across Nelson, a fanatical and sectarian Protestant from Belfast’s Shankill Road, who was recruited in 1985 by British military intelligence to act as an army agent in the UDA, which he had joined a decade earlier. Nelson, a former soldier, had served with the Black Watch, and later took a building job in Germany.
He performed his delicate and dangerous new task with great enthusiasm. His house and car, plus £200 a week expenses, were paid for by the British army (the British taxpayer). In 1987, soon after his recruitment, Nelson went to South Africa to shop for arms for the UDA and supervised the shipment of two huge batches of arms, at least one of which ended up in the hands of the paramilitaries.
Throughout his time in the UDA, Nelson worked closely with army intelligence, whose policy at the time was shamelessly to take sides: for the Protestant paramilitaries, who were seen as pro-British; and against the IRA, who were seen as the enemy. This policy drew British military intelligence into a gang war. Drawing on his sources in British intelligence, Nelson would pass on the names and addresses of known IRA activists to the UDA, whose gunmen would promptly go out and “execute” the suspects.
The success of Nelson’s work commended him to the UDA hierarchy, who appointed him “head of intelligence”. But his system did not always work. In May 1988, Terry McDaid, a bricklayer, was at home watching television when masked gunmen smashed into his home and shot him dead. It was a mistake. The gunmen were looking for Terry’s brother Declan, whose name had been supplied by Nelson.
The policy of consistent collusion between British army special forces and Orange assassins was bitterly opposed in the 1970s by Colin Wallace, an army information officer at Lisburn with strong connections to intelligence, and Fred Holroyd, a British military intelligence officer in Northern Ireland. Both men were denounced and sacked.
Wallace was framed, and jailed for killing his best friend. In 1996, 10 years after his release, his conviction was quashed by the court of appeal. When Stevens discovered the role of Nelson in paramilitary sectarian murders, he insisted on Nelson’s prosecution, and he was arrested.
This caused dismay in the British army and its undercover organisation, the Force Research Unit (FRU). Stevens was adamant that he could not condone Nelson’s behaviour, and frantic negotiations followed. For nearly two years, Nelson was held in the relatively comfortable police “supergrass suite” in Belfast.
A deal was finally clinched in January 1992. Nelson agreed to plead guilty to five conspiracies to murder, and at least four sectarian murder charges against him were dropped. In a bizarre court case lasting less than a day, Nelson’s real role was effectively covered up. After a moving tribute to his sterling work for the British army from a then anonymous colonel, Nelson got 10 years.
Speaking from behind a security screen, and brushing aside Nelson’s record as an accomplice to murder, the colonel stressed the lives Nelson had allegedly “saved”. Nelson was released after serving less than half his sentence, and spent the rest of his life under a false identity.
Stevens, however, was reluctant to leave the matter there. Assisted by Hugh Orde, now chief constable in Northern Ireland, he continued his inquiries into the complicity of army intelligence and the FRU with sectarian murder gangs. Nelson was always at the centre of his inquiries.
The Stevens/Orde report is likely to deal in detail with many sectarian murders of the time, including the appalling murder in his home in 1989 of solicitor Pat Finucane. Nelson’s premature death saves him from further embarrassment. The anonymous “Colonel J” has since been identified as Brigadier Gordon Kerr, now military attaché to the British embassy in Beijing.”
Hundreds of Irish men, women and children, citizens of Ireland, lost their lives or were injured as a result of the steady supply of arms from Apartheid South Africa to the British minority in the north-east of Ireland, a supply chain overseen by the highest echelons of the British state in what was, and is, Britain’s Iran-Contra Scandal. However, no one in Britain, be it politicians or journalists, have ever expressed any real interest in examining this campaign of state-sponsored terrorism waged on their behalf in Ireland. On the contrary some have been implicit in covering it up, as with much else that happened in Britain’s thirty year Dirty War.
For more on the military links between the Apartheid-regime in South Africa, the political and terrorist factions of the British minority in Ireland and the British government itself please read this article here: The 1969 Truthers.
As for the great man himself let us remember Nelson Mandela as he was, a friend and supporter of the Republican cause in Ireland, an ally in the struggle for justice and freedom both at home and abroad.