Date: Sun, 9 Jul 1995 21:01:54 -0200
From: email@example.com (tim jenkin)
To: Multiple recipients of list <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Mayibuye July 1995
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Talking to Vula: Part 3 - Vula Starts
The story of the secret underground communications network of
By Tim Jenkin, in Mayibuye, Vol. 6, no. 3
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
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
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
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'.