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Updated Jul 22, 2020
Nelson Mandela stayed on the top floor of the Ras Hotel in central Addis Ababa during his 1962 visit to Ethiopia.
Nelson Mandela stayed on the top floor of the Ras Hotel in central Addis Ababa during his 1962 visit to Ethiopia.

The death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 elicited tributes from around the globe in honor of the man who negotiated with South Africa’s apartheid rulers to bring about majority rule. He continues to be a symbol of resistance and reform. In his delivery of the latest Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on July 18, the late statesman’s birthday, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres used the opportunity to call for wide-ranging reforms to the international order.

But despite the commemorations, which often focus on his capacity for forgiveness in the 1990s and his ability to make peace with the regime that had imprisoned him, the Mandela of the early 1960s was a very different man. He was a guerrilla, not a peacemaker, and in 1961 had co-founded the armed-wing of the African National Congress (ANC), uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning Spear of the Nation.

To truly understand Mandela, we must understand this earlier part of his life. And to understand this earlier part of his life, we must examine his attraction to Ethiopia, where he spent time as a revolutionary and guerrilla in training. In his various memoirs, he made numerous references to Ethiopia, which he first visited in 1962.

Since Mandela’s passing, a degree of controversy around his time in Ethiopia has also emerged, coming from an unlikely source. Shortly after his death, a story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s secret intelligence agency Mossad had clandestinely trained Mandela. As evidence, Haaretz quoted part of a letter by a member of Israeli embassy staff that describes Mandela: “He greeted our men with ‘Shalom,’ was familiar with the problems of Jewry and of Israel, and gave the impression of being an intellectual. The staff tried to make him into a Zionist.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has questioned the authenticity of the letter, but there is no doubt Mandela was indeed familiar with Jewish and Israeli issues. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he writes that he “read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own.”

Ethiopia, the African kingdom that successfully resisted colonization save for a brief Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941, held a particular allure for Nelson Mandela and many African nationalists in the post-colonial period. It could be argued that Emperor Haile Selassie was Africa’s most famous politician of the 20th century, until he was eclipsed by Nelson Mandela. In Jamaica and elsewhere, the emperor was revered as a messianic figure among followers of the Rastafari movement. But history has not been kind to the emperor, partly due to Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s book The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, with many now remembering him as the ruler who spent his time feeding the pride of lions he kept at his palace, indifferent to domestic affairs.

Meeting the Ras

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten the Selassie of the 1960s was an ardent Pan-Africanist, and it was in AddisAbaba that the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central, and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) was hosted in 1962. PAFMECSA was the forerunner of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was, in turn, the forerunner of the African Union.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls his excitement upon visiting Ethiopia. The prospect of seeing Ethiopia had always intrigued him more than visiting Europe or America. “Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination…” he writes. “I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”

Forty-three years old at the time, Mandela experienced a culture shock when he boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Khartoum to Addis Ababa to find an Ethiopian pilot at the controls. “How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior, and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat and chided myself for such thoughts. Once we were in the air, I lost my nervousness and studied the geography of Ethiopia, thinking how guerrilla forces hid in these very forests to fight the Italian imperialists.”

Entering Addis Ababa, which he calls the Imperial City, in February 1962, Mandela’s vision of Ethiopia was, for the moment, shattered: “a few tarred streets, and more goats and sheep than cars. Apart from the Imperial Palace, the university, and the Ras Hotel, where we stayed, few structures could compare with even the least impressive buildings of Johannesburg.”

Today, most roads are paved and crowded with cars, especially the city’s ubiquitous shared taxis, though the city’s skyline is still somewhat spartan when compared to the skyscrapers of Johannesburg. Time, though, has been less kind to the Ras Hotel: in one corner stands a haggard stuffed lion while women of the night cast around the lobby for potential customers. Outside the revolving door, touts and beggars wait to pounce on tourists under a portico next to the neighboring book vendor selling Amharic and a few English books, including a knockoff copy of Kapuściński’s The Emperor. The Ethiopian “national cuisine” served in the hotel is among the best in the city. It remains one of the few places in the Ethiopian capital where one can find meat dishes being served even on days of the week Ethiopian Orthodox Christians observe fasting days where they avoid consuming meat.

Another change from when Mandela first visited the city is that a room on the third floor has since been turned into a veritable shrine to the man himself, albeit one that is available for booking, and the third floor is now the Mandela Floor. A larger-than-life image of a grey-haired Mandela greets visitors from the top of the stairs, followed by a photo of Robben Island on the door to the Mandela Room. The three-chambered suite is modest by today’s standards, but would have seemed lavish in the early 1960s, when it was graced by many notables, including the Yugoslav statesman Marshal Tito.

Mandela met many revolutionaries and people of note at the 1962 PAFMECSA conference, but it was Emperor Selassie—whom Mandela asked for help raising funds, a crucial part of the ANC’s revolutionary cause—who made one of the biggest impressions. As he later recalled in Conversations with Myself: “That was an impressive fellow, man, very impressive. It was my first time to watch... a head of state going through the formalities... the motions of formality. This chap came wearing a uniform and he then came and bowed. But it was a bow which was not a bow—he stood erect, you see, but just brought down his head.”

He later observed Selassie at a military parade. At the time, Ethiopia was a United States ally, and US military advisors at the occasion paid their respects to the emperor, leading Mandela to note: “to see whites going to a black monarch emperor and bowing was also very interesting.” The US was one of just six countries to never recognize the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and the two states were enjoying warm relations at the time of Mandela’s visit. In 1957, then US vice president Richard Nixon visited Ethiopia and hailed the kingdom as “one of the United States’ most stalwart and consistent allies.”

Training in Guerrilla Warfare

After the conference, Mandela left Ethiopia to continue his wide-ranging fundraising tour, visiting Egypt, Mali, Tunisia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Sudan, and the United Kingdom. Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba was a particularly strong supporter, donating £5,000 (about US$150,000 in today’s money) to uMkhonto we Sizwe for arms. En route, Mandela also received some training in guerrilla warfare from Algerian rebels in Morocco.

As agreed, Mandela soon returned to Ethiopia for military training. The ANC had offices in Cairo and Accra, but neither Nasser’s Egypt nor Nkrumah’s Ghana had a military versed in guerrilla warfare. Many Ethiopian officers had honed their field craft fighting the Italians during World War II. In deciding to train in Ethiopia rather than a Warsaw Pact country or China, Mandela was openly branding the armed portion of the ANC struggle as African and moving the ANC’s position away from the Soviet Union, a policy that might have influenced him to meet with the Israelis.

Ethiopia, whose military had multiple veterans of the guerrilla war against the Italian occupation, also possibly presented Mandela with the best opportunity to learn the military skills necessary to lead uMkhonto we Sizwe. He planned to spend six months receiving training on weaponry, tactics, and leadership. The ANC’s armed wing had already launched a series of sabotage attacks in South Africa, so instruction on mines and other explosives was also given. Mandela’s training included live-fire exercises with both Eastern Bloc- and American-made weapons. His instructors were Colonel Tadesse Birru, Colonel Fekadu Wakene, and Lieutenant Wondoni Befikadu. Wondoni, a former fighter, led the physical training, and Tadesse lectured Mandela in the philosophy of guerrilla warfare. The recently emerged Israeli government letter implies Mandela was trained by someone referred to as “the Ethiopian,” which could mean some of Mandela’s instructors were linked to the Israelis.

Indeed, Israel was keen to cultivate good relations with the non-Arab countries in Africa at the time, though later, as African liberation movements came to be dominated by communist elements, this policy shifted slowly to an awkward security relationship with the apartheid South African government.

Biniyam Mengistu, a tour guide and local historian in the southern Ethiopian city of Harrar, believes Mandela received some of his instruction in Harar. If this were true, it was perhaps Tadesse who invited him to visit this important city in the east of the country. The region’s main inhabitants, the Oromo people, are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and Tadesse eventually launched his own guerrilla war against the state four years later in the name of Oromo nationalism. In 1975, he was executed by the Derg regime.

To this day, the time Tadesse spent with Mandela is a source of pride for Oromo nationalists. A grainy photo of him in uniform standing next to Mandela can be found on many Oromo nationalist websites, and the Oromo National Congress (now the Oromo Federalist Congress) originally named itself after Mandela’s African National Congress.

The Way of the Gun

In the end, Mandela’s time in Ethiopia lasted only a few short weeks before it was decided he was needed in South Africa. On the orders of Haile Selassie, Tadesse gave Mandela a Bulgarian-made Makarov pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition before his trip home. He was also issued with an Ethiopian passport under the name David Motsamayi (meaning David the Walker).

Upon his arrival in South Africa, Mandela spent time at an ANC safe house, Liliesleaf Farm, in Johannesburg. As the police closed in on him, he decided to bury the pistol. Digging a 1.5 meter pit not far from the farm’s kitchen, he wrapped the weapon and its ammunition in foil and placed the stash, along with his military uniform, under a tin plate. He was arrested days later.

Mandela did return to Ethiopia decades later, in 1990, to address the OAU in Addis Ababa. This meant meeting Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s brutal dictator who had ruled the country directly or indirectly since 1974. During Mengistu’s rule, more than 2 million Ethiopians were murdered or died of starvation, and with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, Mengistu beseeched Mandela to visit and provide him with a small propaganda victory.

Perhaps reluctantly, Mandela agreed to the short visit while already on a trip to Tanzania. Coarse footage from the period shows the veteran Mengistu beaming as he honors Mandela, yet it is Mandela who appears the statelier figure. When Mengistu was overthrown the next year, he fled to Zimbabwe and even briefly visited South Africa in 1999 for medical treatment. Mandela’s government considered turning him over to international authorities, but Mengistu soon returned to Zimbabwe, where he has kept a low profile ever since.

Old Friends

Mandela’s time in Ethiopia provides insight into the man and helps place the ANC struggle in its broader African context. It further illuminates his commitment to the armed struggle, making his later role as peacemaker all the more revealing.

Ethiopia has never forgotten its links to Nelson Mandela, and in 2011, for example, 2,300 trees were planted around Addis Ababa in his honor on the Second Annual International Nelson Mandela Day.

The pistol Mandela received in Ethiopia and buried in Johannesburg has never been found. He provided information about its probable location and even searched for it on a visit to Liliesleaf in 2003. Excavations began on the site in 2011 to search for the lost pistol, but it remains lost.

A version of this story was published in Think Africa Press in 2014.


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