There is a statement circulated across Sudanese media platforms as well as the literature on Sudan’s support for African liberation movements that the late African leader, Nelson Mandela, was granted a Sudanese diplomatic passport when he visited Khartoum in 1962, which facilitated his tour to some countries of the African continent back then.
This statement is simplistic, on one hand, and lacks accuracy, on the other. It is simply because it tries to restrict Sudan’s significant support for the anti-apartheid liberation movement in South Africa in a mere travel document for the great freedom fighter.
It is furthermore inaccurate due to the fact that when Nelson entered Sudan, he was actually carrying a passport with an entry visa from one of Sudan’s diplomatic missions abroad.
It is true that he was granted a Sudanese passport, but that was in a bigger context, to be elaborated below.
In fulfilment of a pledge he made on himself to carry out his struggle from within the country, Nelson never travelled outside of South Africa till 1962.
When the African National Congress, (ANC), received an invitation from the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa, PAFMECA, to participate in a conference to be held in Addis Ababa in February 1962, the ANC decided to send a delegation, headed by Nelson, to take part in this conference.
Nelson was encouraged and motivated to break his pledge and get out of the country in this mission because he saw in it not only participation in the activities of the high-level Pan-African conference, but more importantly to take a tour in selected African countries with the aim to explain the cause of his movement’s struggle and to seek political and financial support for it as well as military training for its cadre.
Choosing Sudan among the countries that Nelson decided to visit did not come by chance.
Sudan, being one of the first African countries to gain independence, adopted at the dawn of its early independence a policy to support the African movements pursuing liberation for their countries and freedom from colonialism.
In the case of South Africa, in particular, this policy has taken practical dimensions manifested in cutting off any economic or trade relations with the apartheid regime, denying South African planes and ships access to Sudanese airports and seaports.
Furthermore, Sudan made a proposal, within a multilateral African framework, to militarily train the members of liberation movements on its soil.
Emphasizing the support of Sudan, Nelson mentioned the country twice in his speech of 3 February 1962 before the Addis Ababa conference, four months before his visit to Sudan.
In Addis Ababa, Nelson was offered a passport by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to enable him to make his African tour. It was not possible for Nelson to get a South African travel document due to his political activities and skin colour. He, therefore, sneaked into present-day Botswana and from there to Tanganyika “Tanzania”, which gave him a letter allowing him to travel to Ethiopia.
Nelson used the Ethiopian passport on the tour that took him to North and West Africa. He visited Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Nigeria. For security reasons, Mandela used a pseudonym “David Motsamayi” in his passport. While he was in Nigeria, he visited the Sudanese embassy in Lagos to obtain the entry visa to Sudan.
He was granted the visa on 26 May 1962. In recognition of his struggle, he was granted the visa-free of any charge, ‘Gratis’. On a visit I made to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg a little over two years ago, I was able to take a shot of that visa, and it caught my attention that the reason mentioned thereon for granting it was “political”, which shows Sudanese authorities’ respectful acknowledgement of the political role Nelson was playing.
Nelson arrived in Khartoum on 19 June 1962 and spent almost ten full days there. When reading Nelson’s Sudan diaries, we find that he met the day following his arrival with the Director of the Political Affairs Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Osman al-Awad, and later on the same day, he met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Khair.
In the evening of the same day, Nelson met with Mohamed Talaat Farid, Minister of Information, Labour, Youth and Sports.
One may wonder what this ministry had to do with a visit of a political nature, anyway! The reason, however, is that that ministry was hosting a few (ANC) youths as part of a training programme that also took them to Tanganyika and Cuba.
Nelson spent a whole week with them in Khartoum, in which he briefed them on the political developments back home, and got feedback about their training programme in Sudan.
For most of those ‘Bloemfontein boys’, Khartoum was the first place to meet Nelson in person. Among those youths was Dr Mochubela ‘Wesi’ Seekoe, who later served as South Africa’s ambassador to Russia and also held the position of Chairperson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation board and Head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Others also held high-level public positions in South Africa after the end of the apartheid regime.
The experience of those youths, including their days in Khartoum, was documented in a movie directed by a grandson of one of these young men, titled the “Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela”.
A notable feature of Nelson’s visit to Khartoum was his meeting with the former President Ibrahim Abboud on June 25, 1962. Mandela wrote in his diary about the meeting saying: (We meet General Aboud, the President of Sudan. He is extremely cordial, and pledged full support to the African people in their struggle for freedom).
Against the backdrop of this full support, which included political and financial assistance, the Sudanese authorities granted him a diplomatic passport as a symbolic gesture of recognition and appreciation for his struggle.
This passport was distinguished by two things: First, it was a diplomatic passport that represents the highest category among the travel documents granted by states, and secondly, it was the first passport to bear the real name of the freedom fighter that used, up to that moment, a passport under an alias.
Nelson had to wait until 1990, after his release from the long imprisonment, to obtain a passport from his home country. In a celebration of Mandela Day in Sudan in 2015, the ambassador of South Africa to Sudan, Francis Moloi, highlighted that gesture by saying: “Nelson had been issued a Sudanese Passport in recognition of his stature in the collective conscience and psyche of the people of Sudan”.
At the opening speech of his trail case before Pretoria Supreme Court in 1964, which is considered to be one of the two most significant political statements that Nelson had made during his long struggle, he not only summarized the most prominent milestones of his struggle until that moment but also praised some African leaders who supported the political and revolutionary struggle of the blacks In South Africa.
President Abboud of Sudan gained a rightfully deserved place in that historic sermon.