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Date: Sun, 9 Jul 1995 21:01:54 -0200
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From: ancdip@wn.apc.org (tim jenkin)
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Subject: Mayibuye July 1995

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Talking to Vula: Part 3 - Vula Starts

The story of the secret underground communications network of Operation Vula

By Tim Jenkin, in Mayibuye, Vol. 6, no. 3
July 1995

In the early months of 1988 Mac Maharaj and 'Ghebuza' (Siphiwe Nyanda) were readying themselves to be infiltrated into the country as the first group of Vula operatives. To most people, however, Mac was a very sick man, suffering from a serious kidney ailment. He hobbled around on a stick and failed to turn up for a string of important meetings. It was said that he was about to go to a sanatorium in the Soviet Union to wait for a kidney transplant. Ghebuza was also withdrawing from his regular activities because he was about to go on a long 'officer training course' in the Soviet Union. No one, other than president Oliver Tambo and a few others involved in the preparations for Vula, knew the truth. So tight was the security around the preparations that no one doubted what they were told about Mac and Ghebuza.

The two had been well prepared with a range of professional disguises and false documents. An extremely contorted route had been worked out for the pair to reach South Africa from Zambia. They would depart for the Soviet Union where their appearances and identities would be radically altered. >From Moscow they would fly to a few European cities to fuzz the trail, from where they would move on to east Africa and ultimately to Swaziland, where they would be assisted to hop the border into South Africa. Everything along the way was well prepared and well rehearsed.

Back in London the communications equipment stood idle waiting for Vula to start. Although we had thoroughly tested our equipment, messages had been sent successfully from South Africa only from the 'ideal' conditions of a comfortable hotel room. A public telephone was different. Would not the sounds of the street, the dropping of the coins and other factors not distort the delicate computer messages and render the system worthless?

As Mac and company would not have the computers on arrival in South Africa - these were due to be smuggled in later - we had set up a voice-mail system linked to a tone pager at the London end for initial communications. This allowed the comrades in South Africa to deposit voice messages in an electronic 'voice bank', and when they did so we in London would get bleeped. We could listen to the message from any phone - though we only used public phones for security - by punching in a special code on the dial buttons. We could also leave messages, but there was no way the comrades would know there were messages waiting for them except by dialling in periodically to check.

I started carrying the pager from the beginning of August 1988, for I knew that from around that time the comrades would be in the country. A date in the second week of August had been set for Mac to meet Antoinette, our KLM courier, who was going to hand over the radio telephone she had earlier acquired.

Suddenly, in the first week of August, the pager began to bleep. Could this be the start of Vula, or just a wrong number? Sure enough, the familiar voice of Mac played out of the voice 'mailbox'. He wanted to clarify some final details about the planned meeting with Antoinette, but more than that it was a message to tell us that they were safely in the country. I quickly informed Lusaka of the good news.

The meeting with Antoinette went successfully and Mac got his telephone. After that there were a string of 'voice bank' messages but very little real information could be transferred with the limited set of code words that had been established beforehand. It was clear that Mac was getting frustrated by the non-arrival of the communications equipment. As Antoinette was due in Johannesburg again in two weeks we decided to buy another laptop and send it in with her, complete with all the other bits and pieces needed to communicate.

I expected Mac to begin communicating immediately but the receiving equipment in the London 'communications centre' remained silent for another week. I grew increasingly sceptical that it would ever be used: "It's too complicated. Give them a few more weeks and they'll throw the whole lot out and start speaking in whispers over phones again. I know these guys."

Then suddenly on the last day of August, the 'receive' phone started ringing. The answering machine played its usual outgoing message and then the yellow 'receive' light came on, followed by the familiar high pitched tone of a computer message. It was music to my ears. I tried to picture Mac cowering inside the acoustic hood of some grubby public telephone in Durban. I could see him nervously holding the little speaker against the mouthpiece of the phone while looking worriedly over his shoulder. His heart must have been racing like mine. It was hard to believe that the sound I was hearing so clearly was coming from a small tape recorder ten thousand kilometres away.

I quickly played back the message into my computer and proceeded to decipher it. As the text message appeared on the screen I leapt for joy. There it was - Vula's first message - as clear as daylight.

As I was reading the printout the phone rang again. Another message. After that there followed another three. Five messages in the first go and all of them deciphered okay.

There were a few corruptions in the messages but the error-handler had coped well. In all cases it was possible to guess the lost words from the context. I joined all Mac's messages into one and sent the file down to Lusaka. "That's the quickest any serious message has ever reached our leaders," I realised as I was sending it.

The messages were typically Mac: not a sign of emotion, just straight down to business. It was clear that he had already been extremely busy. There were details of how he was spending the money; details of the setting up of a propaganda project; a list of publications he wanted from London; proposals for setting up bookstores in Durban and Johannesburg; progress in setting up a reception committee for Nelson Mandela in case he was released from prison; details of meetings with key MDM leaders; and so forth. He also said he had found an untraceable way of registering vehicles - a skill which I hope, as the Minister of Transport, he has now forgotten.

The next day I prepared a response for Mac and placed it on the 'out' answering machine. That same day he picked it up and the next day came a reply. This time the message contained some emotion. Mac was excited at the prospects of being able to communicate with the leadership in such a short time. However, there had been some problems. He had not been able to pick up my message using a public telephone as the sound of the coin-drops had corrupted it too badly. He'd had to use a private phone to retrieve the message - and that wasn't good for security.

If the comrades had been in Johannesburg they could have used the radio telephone, but it did not work in Durban, where they were based. As I was pondering this problem another message arrived from Mac. He had discovered in the city a number of public telephones that used phone cards. Apparently Telkom had implemented a pilot project to test the viability of introducing card-operated public telephones. From then on we never looked back.

The link begins to pay

Within a couple of weeks of setting up the computerised communication link with South Africa, the value of good communications began to show. For the first time in the history of the underground struggle you had a group of operatives inside South Africa in dynamic contact with the leadership outside. What this meant was that there could be true dialogue between the soldiers and the generals. No longer did you have a situation where blind commands were issued which the soldiers obediently had to carry out. The leaders were now properly informed of the situation inside the country and any suggestions they made could be corrected by those 'in the field'. Mac and Ghebuza could air their ideas with the leadership and the latter in turn could ask for more information before any decisions were taken. In short, there could be true political leadership instead of one-sided military orders.

The link not only served as a channel for dialogue and information transfer but also for a number of other purposes such as making requests, issuing criticism and arranging meetings.

Most requests were for money, documents, additional equipment for communications and the like. When the first request for weapons appeared on my screen my eyes stood out on stalks. I had seen the comrades packing some light weaponry when I was in Lusaka in June but now they were asking for an arsenal: AKM automatic rifles, TNT, detonating cord, hand grenades, RPG rocket launchers and rifle silencers, among other things.

Over the years the main factor holding back our revolution had been the logistical problems associated with the long lines of supply. Now suddenly these problems melted away. The comrades could during the week demand a supply of weapons or other equipment and have it 'delivered' by the weekend. Details of meetings could be arranged more or less instantaneously, complete with legends and passwords. If anything went wrong at the last moment both sides could be informed timeously.

The ability to communicate almost instantaneously began to have a profound affect on the nature of the project itself, and the personnel at both ends - and in the middle - had to adapt to a new style of working.

At first the comrades at home were patient in waiting for responses from a leadership who were not accustomed to responding rapidly to events. This quickly turned to impatience as they became aware that speed of response was an organisational problem and not one that could be blamed on inefficient modes of communication.

On the part of the leadership in Lusaka the inertia of the old ways was soon swept aside by the enthusiasm of those at home. The number of questions and requests coming down the line made them pull their fingers out. The messages also for the first time gave them a window onto what was going on, making them feel part of something live. This added spirit to their former languid manner of responding to events.

For our part in London, we at first felt like passive spectators watching the messages shuttle back and forth. Soon we realised that we could play the role of facilitators by prodding Lusaka for responses and reminding them of what they had to do. Printouts and disk files of the traffic provided a convenient record of what was demanded and what needed to happen. We could often short-circuit things by responding on behalf of the other side when we got a better feel of what was happening at both ends.

The system expands

>From the start we were never completely certain how secure our encryption programme was. According to the experts there was only one theoretically unbreakable cipher - the one-time pad. Our system was based on the one-time pad, though instead of having paper pads the random numbers were on a disk. Each time the computer enciphered a message it read the correct number of characters from the disk, used them to perform the encryption and then wiped them from the disk so that they could never be recovered. While this provided the maximum security it had the disadvantage that the numbers got used up and more 'key' disks had to be sent into the country. Fortunately Antoinette was able to take these in.

The only way this system could be cracked was if the enemy somehow got hold of the 'key' disks and made copies of them. But after a while it was clear that nothing of the sort was happening. If the enemy were reading the messages then they would surely have acted on the information they contained.

The amount of traffic increased by the day and in order to streamline operations Mac acquired a message pager. Using a special set of code words, we in London could now let him know when there were messages waiting to be collected. It also allowed us to inform him if his messages had deciphered successfully or if he had to resend them. He could do the same with us using the voice mail system linked to our pager. As all this phoning had to be done from public telephones I decided that it would be a lot easier if I bought a cell phone. This I did using a false identity I had set up for myself. The cell phone turned out to be a most valuable addition to our communications set-up. In combination with the 'voice bank' and pagers we could now talk to each other in almost real time without our voices ever coming together. New code words could easily be added through a computer message. Often a question posed in a computer message could instantaneously be answered with this voice mail/pager system.

The answering machines clicked and whirred all day long with messages to and from Lusaka and South Africa. Mac's messages would often come through in the middle of the night as well. Not only did the frequency of messages increase but also their length. As the phone cards being used by the comrades in South Africa lasted a mere minute and a half, messages often had to be split up into chunks. Sometimes a single message would consist of up to ten parts.

The demands on the system increased rapidly over the months forcing us to extend it to Conny Braam in Holland; to some comrades in Yorkshire who were assisting with documentation; and to Canada where a Vula operative was involved in recruiting activists to be sent in to assist Vula. There was no need to use the complicated acoustic modem/tape recorder system with these 'nodes' as the security demands were not of the same nature. Ordinary e-mail links were set up using commercial providers. The same encryption program was used, however, to maintain the same level of security as with South Africa and Zambia.

Inside South Africa Mac spent much of his time travelling between Durban and Johannesburg to attend meetings and set up structures. When he was 'out-of-town' Ghebuza would take over the communications. Often Mac's trips to Johannesburg were timed to coincide with Antoinette's flights to South Africa. And each time she flew to South Africa I had to go Holland twice: once to take her things for Mac and once to pick up whatever she brought back. On the out trips she would usually take great wads of 50 notes, new 'key' disks, upgrades of the encryption programmes, disks containing (encrypted) documents and longer analytical messages from Lusaka, micro-photographs or heavily concealed copies of ANC and SACP publications, new tape recorders and so on. On the return trips should would usually bring back disks of encrypted messages giving fuller details of the ongoing projects and the political situation in general.

Whenever I was out of the country Ronnie Press would take over control. He was by this stage also living in London and had in his flat an identical set of equipment. All that had to be done to switch the traffic to him was to inform the comrades at both ends to use his numbers instead of mine. Between our two flats we set up a number of links and backup systems using commercial e-mail, our own private bulletin board system and even a radio link which could transfer the messages using radio modems. We could also use the answering machine/acoustic modem system as a last resort.

At the Lusaka end one of Conny's soldiers, Lucia, was put in charge of communications. From that point on the efficiency of that station increased markedly. A matchbox house in one of Lusaka's squalid townships was rigged out to serve as the comms centre.

By early 1989 Vula was ready for big things, and it was clear that what had been achieved in such a short time could not have been done without the ability of all concerned to talk to each other so easily and so securely.

Next month: Vula reaches all the way to Nelson Mandela's prison 'cell'.

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