Date: Fri, 13 Oct 1995 03:56:29 -0200
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Subject: Mayibuye - October 1995
Journal of the African National Congress - Volume 6 No. 6 - October 1995
Mayibuye is also available in HTML format from the ANC web site at:
The story of the secret underground communications network of
Part 6: Vula Winds Up
By Tim Jenkin, in Mayibuye, Journal of the African
National Congress, Vol.6, no. 6
Nineteen ninety was a momentous year for the ANC. It was the year that the
apartheid regime unbanned the organisation and released its leaders from
prison. Although this should have been accepted with jubilation, most of us
were extremely sceptical and carried on as if nothing had happened. It was
too difficult to trust a regime that had always acted with such duplicity.
There was no slowing down of activities related to Operation Vula until
much later in the year, well after negotiations had got under way. In fact,
the high point of Vula was reached in the middle of the year, only to be
brought down by the arrests of a number of key activists in July.
At the time of the unbanning on 2 February 1990, a number of people were
lined up to enter the country to bolster Vula. Ronnie Kasrils was the most
important of these, but a number of others, mainly recruits from Conny
Braam's stable, had been prepared and were later sent in to do support
After a number of delays Ronnie Kasrils entered South Africa on 23 March.
Under heavy disguise and with false documents he made his way through
passport control at Johannesburg airport with no problem, and was able to
inform us from the airport of his successful passage.
Ronnie's entry marked the changeover to a far more sophisticated
communications system. He brought in with him the software and hardware
required to allow the comrades to use proper electronic mail via an
international service provider. This moved Vula's communications to a
higher level and allowed us to put aside our quaint, but effective,
acoustic modem/tape recorder communications system.
The amount of information moving along the 'hotline' immediately increased
ten-fold. The implementation of the new system appeared to release the
pent-up literary strivings of the comrades. Report after report flowed down
the line to Lusaka. To the frustration of the comrades very little flowed
in the reverse direction. The unbanning of the ANC had thrown all
structures in Lusaka, including Vula's, into turmoil. Everyone wondered
what happened to all these reports and Lusaka took on a new code name -
'the black hole'.
Despite the apparent void at the Lusaka end reports were carefully
scrutinised and distributed among the leadership who were preparing to
return to South Africa. There is no doubt that the reports helped brief the
leadership about the situation 'on the ground' and gave them a feel for
what to expect when they returned to the country.
The flow of arms into South Africa during the first months of the ANC's
unbanning also did not decrease. On the contrary, the number of 'contacts'
increased as the months passed. There was a great debate on the role of the
underground in the 'new South Africa'. If negotiations with the apartheid
regime did not work out the ANC needed an 'insurance policy', and this
would be provided by the underground. And it had to be a strong
underground, not one that had no weapons at hand.
Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11 February and by the end of
the month was in Lusaka to meet the ANC leadership. His release stirred up
activity on all fronts and for a month or two attention got diverted from
Vula. Little information on the movement's responses to the unbanning and
releases reached comrades inside the country.
When minutes of meetings did begin to be sent in this only aroused the ire
of the comrades, for it appeared that important decisions relating to
internal matters were being taken without consulting them.
Despite repeated criticism from Mac Maharaj and others the views of the
Vula comrades were largely ignored. Part of the problem was that no one was
supposed to know that they were in the country, making it difficult for
those in the know to give much weight to the views emanating from the
This so frustrated Mac that on 24 February he announced his resignation and
asked for the structures to arrange his exfiltration. This shocked everyone
greatly for his extreme reaction seemed unwarranted. The best way to
respond to this, everyone agreed, was to not respond. The tactic worked,
for by the time there was a response several weeks later Mac had simmered
down considerably. Eventually he was spoken to by Mandela and at the
beginning of April he retracted his resignation.
Once again, the value of a dynamic communications channel showed itself. If
there had not been the capacity of all to discuss the matter Vula would
have been seriously incapacitated.
Comrades leave in order to return
At the beginning of June it was becoming clear that Mac and Ronnie would
have to leave the country in order to return. They were to return as
members of the ANC NEC in order to attend NEC meetings now being held in
South Africa. For obvious reasons they couldn't just pop up, so elaborate
plans had to be made to get them out of the country and back in again.
Ronnie, everyone had been told, was in Vietnam recovering from a serious
motor accident. Suddenly there was a remarkable recovery and he would soon
be released from the hospital and return to South Africa. Mac had also made
a miraculous recovery in the Soviet Union. The comrades were now going home
and the truth could come out if necessary. In any case, everyone had their
attention on the exciting developments at home so never noticed that the
personal tales of these two did not match reality.
On July 14 some bad news arrived:
"VERY URGENT. It appears that Vula may be facing serious and
Three days earlier contact with Ghebuza (Siphiwe Nyanda) had been lost.
Shortly before this Ghebuza had reported that a certain comrade had been
missing for a week. A number of other comrades had been arrested, as well
as Ghebuza's assistant. This created a 'BIG PROBLEM RE COMMS' as the
assistant was in the habit of moving around with Ghebuza's program and
'key' disks as well as his data files. This was against all the rules
though we had always suspected that some of the comrades were less than
meticulous about observing them.
All these disasters had taken place in Durban and so immediately all
communications with that area were stopped. It was possible that all the
'key' disks and books of that area had fallen into police hands, and as
they probably had the program disks too they could gain access to the links
in use. There were e-mail links between Durban and London and between
Durban and Johannesburg. The old acoustic modem/tape recorder system was
still operational too, which meant that the numbers of the answering
machines in London would be known. There were pager and voice mail links
too and these would also probably become known to the police.
Fortunately our communications system was so sophisticated by this stage
that it took but one day to repair the damage. It was easy enough to alter
the access passwords of the suspect e-mailboxes and switch the most
important links to other channels already in existence. The voice mail
system too had excess capacity so it was easy enough to bring on line a new
set of numbers. New code words were devised and new coding books agreed
To assess the damage and assist with damage control Mac and Ronnie, now
legally in South Africa, dashed down to Durban. Their first report was
that, while considerable damage had been done, the structures were
developed enough to contain the damage and prevent any further arrests and
Four 'legals' and six underground comrades had been arrested. It appeared
that the police stumbled on Vula quite by chance. Two comrades had been
arrested while on a mission unrelated to Vula. These arrests provided the
police with information about a meeting that the two were due to attend.
Police waited at the venue to arrest whoever turned up, and this led to the
arrest of further Vula comrades.
On 16 July police actions spread to Johannesburg when they raided the house
of two Vula support personnel. Mac and Ronnie were unsure if they
themselves would be detained by the police as they were leadership figures
and had received indemnity from the regime. But they could take no chances
so made sure that all existing 'safe houses' were cleared out and all
communications equipment moved to safe venues. Arms caches and other
incriminating materials were also moved. But on 25 July Mac was arrested.
This prompted Ronnie to go back underground. Janet Love had never surfaced
but moved even further underground as she was key in maintaining the
The comrades were able through the various modes of communication used by
Vula, including pagers, to contain the damage almost totally. The police
made very little headway in that region and within a very short time
'normal' activity was resumed.
The SACP claimed that the arrest of Mac was a clear move by the government
to undermine the relaunch of the party inside the country, due four days
later. Others in the ANC condemned the action as a provocation aimed at
hindering the talks taking place between the ANC and the government.
The regime itself went overboard with the arrests, claiming that they had
clear evidence of a sinister 'communist plot' to overthrow the government
by violent action if negotiations failed. They said the evidence coming to
light showed that the movement was acting against the spirit of
negotiations by still maintaining an underground and smuggling weapons into
The details of Vula that the regime released to the press revealed that
indeed a number of important documents had fallen into their hands. It
became clearer by the day that the comrades in Durban had violated all the
rules of security that we had so assiduously tried to impress upon them.
Data files of confidential information were kept 'in clear' on disk and
keywords and key books must have been easily obtainable. The minutes of an
entire underground conference were quoted by police as evidence of the plot
to overthrow the government.
Those of us in London and Lusaka were shocked by the lack of measures taken
by the Durban comrades to protect their information. What was the purpose
of all the encryption programs and security manuals that had been sent in
at such risk? Such measures are of no value whatsoever if the rules are not
obeyed. The entire communications system had been designed to withstand
this sort of disaster but when the time of reckoning came the police found
an open book.
After this there was a tremendous tightening of activities relating to
communications. Janet Love, now in charge of communications from the
inside, made sure that all stored documents were kept in encrypted form and
that the data disks were placed in the care of people who could only be
reached through 'cutoffs'. Program disks were kept apart from 'key' disks
and only brought together when files had to be enciphered or deciphered.
Additional people more remote from the 'frontline' were recruited to do the
actual transmissions. All printouts were carefully destroyed after being
Comrades in court
On 29 October Mac appeared in court with seven others on charges of
'terrorism'. The indictment was extremely revealing and exposed to the
public for the first time the scope of Operation Vula.
The main charge was that the accused had between July 1988 and July 1990
'performed acts aimed at causing, bringing about, promoting or contributing
towards acts or threats of violence'. The accused had 'conspired to create
an underground network the task of which would be to recruit, train, lead
and arm a "people's" or "revolutionary" army to be used to seize power from
the government by means of an armed insurrection'.
They had arranged for the transfer of large sums of money from outside to
finance the project's activities. They had assisted with the infiltration
of other persons who were to participate in the project. They had rented a
number of "safe houses" and set up a communications network by means of
which the accused and their co-conspirators could communicate in code. They
had also procured equipment for communications by means of invisible
writing and modified cars for the clandestine importation of arms.
It went on and on. The accused had smuggled in and secreted weapons and
explosives, procured material to prepare propaganda, recruited people for
training inside and outside South Africa, provided training in the art of
warfare and approached foreign powers. They had assembled and kept
intelligence on the location of strategic targets, such as police stations,
fuel depots and army unit headquarters, as well as personal particulars of
members of the police.
There were lists of foreigners who had been infiltrated to assist the
project and details of 15 "safe houses" in Johannesburg and Durban. There
were details of vehicles and vast numbers of "revolutionary" documents.
On 8 November the comrades on trial were released on bail totalling nearly
R300,000. It was clear that the regime's hopes of using the trial to drive
a wedge between the ANC and SACP while negotiating with them had backfired.
There was no more mileage to be gained from pursing the trial so the
trialists were released.
At the same time the police announced that they were looking for four
suspects - Ronnie Kasrils, Janet Love, Charles Ndaba and Christopher Manye
- in connection with the illegal importation of arms, ammunition and
explosives. The suspects were said to "armed and extremely dangerous" and
continuously made use of "all sorts of disguises" to hide their identities.
Rewards were offered for information leading to their arrests.
The timing of the announcement by the police - four months after the
arrests of the others - raised suspicion that they were using it to cover
up the possible deaths in detention of Charles Ndaba and Mbuso Shabalala.
They were the first comrades to be arrested in July and were never heard of
On 22 March 1991 the nine trialists and Ronnie Kasrils were indemnified
against prosecution in terms of the government's commitments to the
Pretoria and Groote Schuur Minutes. This put paid to the trail and nothing
more was heard about it after that.
Ronnie and Janet remained in hiding because the police never said that they
had given up their search for them. But three months later the two were
instructed to break cover and did so with little fanfare. No further action
was taken against them.
Right up to the early months of 1991 the channel to Vula remained open and
continued to carry heavy traffic. Most of this was in the form of prepared
documentation that the comrades could use internally. It saved them the
bother of having to prepare such documents and allowed them to concentrate
their efforts on production and distribution.
The question of the role of the underground remained unresolved. So long as
the regime maintained its arrogant attitude and the situation could not be
said to be irreversible there was a need to maintain structures that could
be aroused to carry on the struggle. Even after the ANC renounced the armed
struggle there was a need to ensure that weapons were securely stored in
the event of a sudden reversal.
Vula's communications network had proved so valuable that there was talk of
moving the whole thing to South Africa. There was no need to keep the
London outpost as there was no longer anyone to communicate with in Lusaka.
With the entire leadership now based in South Africa it made sense to bring
Vula's external resources home to ensure that internal links were
maintained and strengthened.
But as the months passed the underground came closer to the surface and it
was soon indistinguishable from the surface. The communications needs of
the movement did not disappear but no longer was there any need to maintain
a clandestine network. Communications too could come in from the cold.
The lessons of Vula are clear. Without first-class communications you
cannot carry out a successful underground operation. Underground does not
mean silence, it simply means operating at a different level - one that
operates in parallel but separately from the above-ground. Both levels need
to be able to communicate in order to operate effectively but in the
underground communication links are more critical as they are the cement
that binds together the parts.
Vula carried out its activities over a two-year period and during that time
more structures were created than during the previous twenty years.
Although perhaps fewer weapons were smuggled in than during the previous
twenty years, fewer ended up in enemy hands and fewer people were captured.
It is clear that the regime received a major shock when they uncovered
Vula. They had no idea of what was going on and it would be fair to say
that the sophistication of the operation must have convinced the enemy's
negotiators that they were not dealing with the ANC of old. When they
discovered that their security apparatus was thoroughly infiltrated with
'moles' who were passing confidential information to the ANC via Vula they
must have felt very unsafe indeed. And when they realised that they were
dealing with an underground that could easily contain itself after
receiving a severe knock their complacency must have been shattered.
Vula should serve as an example for the present. The need for good
communications are as important today as they were in the days of the
underground. Good communications will ensure that the party shares the same
information and approaches key issues with a united voice.