This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
25 Mar 2002: Jenkin, Tim
POM Tim, perhaps you could start first by just telling me about yourself, where you were born, your background, how you were drawn into the struggle in SA, your experiences. You were imprisoned for some time, you escaped from prison. From there.
TJ I was born in Cape Town and I grew up, I suppose you would say, a normal white South African. I went to school in Cape Town, I went to university in Cape Town and I never had a single political idea in my head until, in fact when I left the country, I had to go overseas and like most white South Africans after they finish school they want to travel around the world and see the rest of the world and I travelled over to Britain and in a way it opened my eyes. Up until then I had just been, as I said I grew up and lived with my family and never really saw anything else of the world. That was the heyday of apartheid and I never had been into black townships, I didn't know how the majority of the people in this part of the world lived. I didn't know even what apartheid was. I mean that was just the way the world was to me, the black people lived out there somewhere and we lived here and it all seemed quite normal and fair and so on so I never gave it a thought.
As I say, I went abroad and you would see these TV programmes about SA showing what's happening there and explaining what apartheid is and I saw these things myself and it kind of woke me up. I thought, no, this is not the place I come from, where I come from is not like this, and people would challenge me.
POM Now you would have gone abroad in the sixties or - ?
TJ This was early seventies. But that just sort of opened my eyes and also just being on my own for the first time and having to fend for myself. This was before I went to university, fresh out of school. I had no skills of course so all I could do was go and find a job and I ended up working in a factory and so on and that also opened my eyes to things because in SA white people didn't work in factories and they didn't sweep the streets and they didn't do any dirty jobs and here I was doing a really dirty job. I worked in a glass fibre factory which was a very dirty job and the sky was polluted with this dust you had to breathe in and you were coughing most of the day and this was actual glass going into your lungs. I could compare the conditions under which we had to work with the management who worked in these beautiful air conditioned offices and so on and at the end of the week you got something like 15, that was your pay, and it just made me think about the way the world worked for the first time. I wouldn't say it politicised me but it just made me aware of things.
Then when I came back to SA it had been enough to inspire me to study sociology, which is what I wanted to do. Before I went away I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had actually been, when I left school I got involved in crazy things like motorbike racing and things like that and I'd had a number of small jobs around the place but, again, as a white person they were fairly decent and clean jobs.
I decided, yes, I wanted to study. Again the motivation wasn't political. I had just become interested in social things, started reading books, and also while I was over there I bought books, just out of curiosity because I knew that in SA just about every single book on politics was banned so I just bought these things out of curiosity to see why they're banned and I brought some of these things back with me. I suppose that's what set me on my political thinking. I got to university, I started studying sociology and economics and psychology and then I started meeting up with people who had similar ideas to what I had and used to discuss things with these people and we used to swap books and pamphlets and so on, sit in the back row in the lectures. It was a good place for swapping all this stuff and I'd come back with all this banned literature which was highly sought after. I didn't really worry about the legal consequences of having all this stuff, it was just like cool to have this sort of thing and swap it around, and then I discovered there was a lot of this stuff floating around in the back row of the lecture halls and we could in fact get a lot of this illegal literature which now in these days is just normal stuff you find in a bookshop anyway but in those days there was nothing. There was no Marxist literature, there was nothing describing the conditions in the country, there was really nothing. Everything was just banned.
So anyway I started meeting up with people and I met this one chap, his name was Stephen Lee who comes in later because he's the guy I ended up in prison and escaped with. We made good friends and we both became very interested in SA politics and alternative politics and we started to look at the situation here and we dabbled a bit with Marxism, not because it had any special appeal but simply because it was banned and it was like the thing you mustn't touch. So of course, you know young students, that's what you get into, anything that's supposed to be illegal and bad and banned and all that sort of thing.
POM That's the attraction.
TJ If they say it's bad then it must be good. We started reading this stuff and the two of us got, as the years went by we thought well, we've read all this stuff, what do we do when we come out of university? Do we just end up like the rest of the students? Does our radical politics just end here? Get out of university, get a job, put on a suit and tie and off we go and forget about all that stuff, or do we actually do something about it? And the two of us for some reason we just got driven by what we were reading and what we were finding out about our country and we decided after we'd finished our degrees, and we were going to finish our degrees in the same year, I think that was 1973 or 1974 and we decided we'd go overseas also, again, just to really broaden our horizons.
POM Had you any contact with black people?
TJ No real contact at all. We knew a few black people. There were still a few black students at university. Black students could study at the University of Cape Town if courses weren't available for them at what we called then 'the bush colleges', the black universities. So there were a handful. We had made some friends but it wasn't really politically driven or anything like that. Somehow we became inspired and decided we wanted, again just because it was the daring thing to do, was to meet up with the ANC. There was no ANC inside the country at all. There were people doing odd things but there was no way of getting in touch with them, there was no ANC office, it was a banned organisation.
So we set off for Europe, we took a ship which was the way you travelled in those days. It took two weeks to travel to Europe and we ended up in Spain, we got off the boat in Spain and then travelled around Europe a bit and ended up in Holland. Our first contact with anti-apartheid we made in Amsterdam, we got in touch with the Dutch Anti-Apartheid movement. I think we did that simply because we saw a notice somewhere saying there was going to be a meeting and we went along to it and we went to this meeting, of course it was all in Dutch, but we could understand a bit of it because it's very similar to Afrikaans. We connected up with some people there. We just started talking to people and got to know some anti-apartheid people there and they gave us some literature to read which whetted our appetites for more of the stuff.
Then we just travelled around the country for a couple of months and eventually ended up in London and it was a strange thing that the day we arrived in London, it was the 25 April 1974, the day of the Portuguese coup, there was something auspicious about that, and we decided the first thing we would do when we get to London we'd better go to the ANC offices. So we marched off to this office, very naïve, we just knocked on the door and said, "Hi, we're from SA and we just would like to make contact. Have you got any literature we can read?" Well these guys were a bit shocked about us just walking in like this. One of the people typed us a note, didn't speak at all, just handed us a note which said, "Meet me at the pub round the corner in half an hour." That's how we made contact with the ANC. The guy said, "Well, what do you want?" We just said, "Oh, we're from SA", and obviously they were suspicious, thought maybe we're spies, they didn't know. He said, "OK, here's some literature and if you'd like to meet some other people come back to this pub tomorrow and we'll introduce you to some other people." So we had a number of meetings like that with people and essentially they were just political discussion meetings, just chatted about things.
POM Sorry, you were talking, you went around to - ?
TJ We went to the ANC and then we met these other people and we had a number of meetings with people from the ANC office and, yes, well that developed into a sort of bigger thing although we feel they should have advised against it, but we were invited to go to all kinds of political meetings and pickets and all kinds of things, but then I don't think they were expecting that we were planning to go back to SA so it was really up to us whether we went to these things.
POM Was that all very informal?
TJ It was all very informal and I think they were just trying to assess us, trying to figure out whether we were spies or whether we were genuine or what. It went on for a long time and they even advised us to settle in London for a while and get jobs because they needed to check us out. But actually before I say that, I think they kind of hinted to us that if we wanted to go back to SA there was a possibility that we could go back and do things for the ANC without specifying what that was. We agreed that we would like to do that. Again, we had no idea what they were talking about. Then, yes, that's what we did. We settled down there for a while, we got jobs and then I think after about nine months or so we were continually going to meetings and meeting these people but I think they were trying to do an assessment somehow. Maybe they had some contacts in the country trying to trace our backgrounds to see if we were genuine or whether we had any police links or anything like that.
Towards or early 1975 they said, "OK, if you want to go back to SA and do something for the ANC we need to put you through a period of training and what you can do is run an underground propaganda cell and we need to teach you the preparation and production of propaganda material and basic communication skills and security things to ensure your own security, tell if you're being followed or watched or anything like that." So we went through this training course, it was given by a number of different people.
POM In London?
TJ In London in different houses in London. They showed us how to reproduce pamphlets and things and how to write them and how they were going to smuggle in drafts to us and how to make a number of ingenious distribution devices and one of them which we used widely was what's called a leaflet bomb which is really just a small explosive device that you put your leaflets in and then it has a timer and you put that in the street disguised as a parcel or something and then after a few minutes it blows up and throws these leaflets up into the air. So that's one thing they showed us and then all kinds of other ways, things like doing graffiti on walls and how to make various timing devices for releasing leaflets into streets and so on and so forth. They showed us some basic code systems, how to prepare and use secret inks, how to set up false mail boxes and so on, all the stuff you need for underground work.
After a year, after a couple of months in this sort of training we went back to SA and I think we arrived back here in about July/August 1975 and they said, "Go back and settle down and get jobs and do nothing for the first few months but just be vigilant to see if anyone's following you and watching you." Then after a while we realised that no-one was following us so we wrote back to them and said OK, we're ready and then they sent us our instructions saying set up a cell. We rented a small flat just up the road here in fact and we'd brought back a fair amount of money with us that they'd given us and we set up shop, or factory as it were, to produce leaflets and they sent us mailing lists and all kinds of things. We bought one of these duplicating machines that you used in those days and we set to work and we produced these things in their hundreds. The first round was really just to post these things out so we produced and put them in envelopes with stamps on and distributed them all around Cape Town in various letter boxes.
POM You actually had a mailing list?
TJ We had a mailing list, yes, and a little addressing machine that could produce labels and so on, you could just stick them on.
POM Were you working full time at the same time?
TJ Yes I had a job at the black university, University of Western Cape, and was working for a research foundation out there. It was actually a very good job for me because it was doing sociological research, so I could go out into the townships and it was really doing surveys of the townships so I was meeting
POM This was in a sense your first time going out into the townships?
TJ The townships and so on, yes.
POM So you joined the ANC before you had gone into a township?
TJ That's right. I came back to SA, got this job it was a brilliant job and also the job itself was very unstructured. You could work at home or you could work there at the university so I had plenty of spare time. All they wanted to see was the reports that you were meant to produce.
Then after we'd been working for a few months, I think it was even till the next year, this was 1976 before the Soweto uprising, our first job was using these leaflet bombs that had been explained to us. They wanted us to go up to Johannesburg on March 21st, which last week was a public holiday here called Freedom Day, it was the day when there was this massacre in Sharpeville in 1960. It was a day that was recognised by the ANC as important in the struggle. So we went up to Johannesburg. We actually flew up in planes carrying these leaflet bombs and stayed in a hotel overnight.
POM Carrying what with you?
TJ These leaflet bombs, but they weren't actually bombs when we were carrying them but we carried all the bits and assembled them up there and made the explosive mixture while we were there and then put it into the bomb. We set these things off at a number of locations around Johannesburg and timed them all to go off more or less at the same time and it was a great success. After we had done this we agreed to meet on the top floor of the Carlton Centre which was the tallest building in Johannesburg and there's an observation deck at the top with telescopes and everything, so we were able to look down at all these places through telescopes and see all this stuff. The police were there, flashing sirens and all the rest of it, and we could see all these leaflets littering round the streets. It was a great success and the next day it was headlines in all the newspapers, 'ANC Attack' and 'Terrorist Attack' and so on, so it was a great success. Because of that these leaflets became our sort of stock in trade. We got back to Cape Town and we produced a lot of these things, every few weeks.
POM Were you at this time still just a cell of - ?
TJ Just a cell of the two of us, myself and Stephen.
POM You didn't have contact with others?
TJ We weren't in contact, we were not allowed to even attempt to contact anybody. We were under instructions from the people we were communicating with in London. Yes, we stepped up our production and our mailing list got longer and longer and we had quite a few thousand names and we were producing on the one hand leaflets that they'd send out to us. Then we even got together our own publication which was quite a substantial thing which was really collecting newspapers every day, we would cut them out and stick them in scrap books and then attempt to write articles trying to assess the situation. Of course this was all that period of 1976, the Soweto uprising and it carried on for a year or more after that. So we were writing articles about this. We were also getting some input from Radio Freedom which was the ANC radio broadcast from Zambia, so we would try and listen and record that every day. That would give us the general line and the kind of terminology from the ANC. We would use the same thing, we would record it onto a tape recorder and transcribe these things and then try and expand on it and we would produce a regular publication, I can't remember the name of it. I think it was called Vukani Awake or something like that. This thing was produced, we tried to produce one of these every month and we were producing these leaflet bombs which we would let off on all the key days, December 16th and March 21st and anything that seemed significant to us or if there was some particular event like Soweto. There were a whole lot of them following that and if there was massacre somewhere we'd let off a whole lot of these things.
Each time they had a great impact, the impact they made was far larger than the actual distribution in the street because it would be written about in the newspapers and usually would be the headlines. We got very casual about doing these things and sometimes we'd set off ten or more of these things in one go. We'd have them in our case, these things, just piles and take like four at a time and walk around. We'd improved the mechanism, the way they worked over the months. The original ones, for example, you had to set the timer before you set out so you had these things ticking away in your hand and it was quite scary whereas afterwards we had a triggering device which was really just a pin holding back the timer so you could go right up to the point where you're going to put this thing and just pull the pin out and give yourself a few minutes to get away, so you could select very nice places where there's a crowd of people or whatever. As I saw it, these things were very effective.
Well this activity went on for about two and a half years, from some time in 1975 through to 1978 when we got arrested. I don't really want to go into all the details of the whole activity. We'd moved our operating premises a number of times and we improved our operations. We got better equipment and all that kind of thing as time went on so it became a sleeker operation. There were all kinds of bits and pieces in between, like I was called overseas at one stage because there had been some arrests of another major cell that was working in Cape Town and they wanted us to take over some functions of that cell. Then at one stage they wanted us to get involved in some real life sabotage and they sent me across to East Germany where I received special training by the East Germans.
POM When you were in East Germany how long were you there for?
TJ I was there for some time. I think I was out of the country for something like six weeks. I can't remember how long I was there for, a few weeks.
POM Were you confined to did you live in a facility?
TJ Yes, it was a military
POM Or were you free to move about?
TJ No, absolutely not, it was a military place.
POM You had no interaction with East Germans?
TJ Not at all, no. It was a place we were at where the only people who were there in fact were myself and the team who were training me. It was clearly a military establishment because they had all the equipment there. Anyway, nothing really came of that because, as I say, these other groups got arrested and then they kept changing our function and they wanted us to remain a propaganda group and not get involved in anything else but our activity just stepped up to a higher level, there were just more and more of these leaflet bombs and the demands got higher and higher.
The main difficulty for us in those days was the communications which I will come back to when we talk about Operation Vula because in effect we had virtually no contact with our handlers in London. We had these kind of codes but they were extremely tedious. It was all hand-coding, this was all before the days of computers, so you would often spend a whole evening just encoding a 300-character message and you couldn't really say very much and in reverse they couldn't really say very much either. There was no political discussion.
POM And that would be sent through - ?
TJ Yes, we would just have very basic messages, just the post. There was no electronic stuff in those days so you could only use the post and it was extremely tedious, as I say, just coding this and then you had to write it out with secret ink and normally you couldn't see what you're writing because it's all invisible. Later we had some better methods where we had ultraviolet lamps and things like that where you could actually see what you were writing and it made life a bit easier. The methods did improve over time as we learnt more about this stuff but that was really the main setback, the communications. All you could communicate was we did this and it was successful and in return they would just send instructions. There was money, if we needed more money we would say we need more money and then they would say right, money coming and we're sending it to this particular address.
POM So in a sense you had a considerable degree of discretion to do what you wanted to.
TJ More or less, more or less we felt on our own you see.
POM You were an autonomous ANC.
TJ That's right and in a way it did cause a bit of conflict because as I said I went back to the UK I think twice and then made full reports and sometimes they would criticise things we were doing and some of the leaflets. We would always try and send an example of what we were doing to them as well and sometimes they had criticisms about that, the line wasn't right and all that sort of thing, but there was no way of communicating this stuff you see so there were those kind of tensions.
I remember one of them arose around the time when Steve Biko was killed. We made our own interpretation of the events and they had a different interpretation but we had no way of discussing that and they didn't like our interpretation.
POM Was yours a far more Black Consciousness - ?
TJ No ours was actually less conciliatory. We were opposed to BC at that time, there was this sort of split. The ANC, as we understood it, the ANC were hostile to the BC thing because it was more well I don't really want to go into that whole debate but they were trying to, because in fact we didn't know about it but Steve Biko had made contact with the ANC and there was apparently some discussion between him and the ANC and we weren't aware of that so they didn't want us to be so hostile to the BC movement. There was no way of communicating those kind of political things. It was all very just practical issues that we could discuss so there were problems and it was extremely slow. A letter could take a week or more to get to them and then it would have to be again deciphered at that end and it might take another day or two and then someone would have to try and figure out what we were trying to say and then there'd probably have to be a political discussion around it and then someone would have to reverse the process so it could take a month or two before you got a reply. It was a very slow process.
Towards the end of our time things were happening that we started to get suspicious about, that we were being followed because all kinds of weird things happened. We'd get strange phone calls, we'd see people who we thought were following us but when we did tests, we'd been trained how to determine if someone was following you, you could never be sure. You didn't know whether this was just paranoia or whether you were just getting worried about you know when you get paranoid everybody is watching you and you see someone outside there you think, oh my God they're watching us. Then tomorrow that person is not there, it might be somebody else and you don't know. So you can never be certain about this kind of thing although we felt something was happening. Too many strange things were going on. We could never communicate this to them because how do you put it and it takes a month before it comes back and in that time a lot of water's gone under the bridge. So those kind of issues we couldn't get advice and maybe if the communications had been better they would have said, look, leave, just don't take a chance, just come out. But we couldn't just leave, it meant also our own personal lives and it was no use just abandoning and throwing away everything and just going overseas. How do you explain that kind of thing? And maybe it's nothing anyway. We wanted to carry on doing this stuff until we got caught.
What happened was one morning early March 1978 they just arrived, knocked on the door and somehow we knew what it was, this loud banging on the door. Nobody does that at two a.m. in the morning, so we looked out the window and there we could see the whole place was surrounded by police cars and all the rest of it and we knew our time was up. So these guys came in, we opened the front door and they barged in with torches flashing and started to tear the place apart, ripping all the books open and tearing everything up and looking for stuff and they took us in and that was it. "We have reason to believe you've been engaged in terrorist activities and you had contact with the ANC", and all this kind of thing. As it turned out of course our suspicions were right. They'd been following for the last few months and knew exactly what we'd been involved in and of course they let us do it because they wanted to see what we were doing, give us rope to hang ourselves with, so to speak.
So they basically knew everything and it just so happened at that time we were in the process of moving from one of these premises, we kept changing premises all the time and changing our equipment and getting different typewriters with different fonts on the things we could use to look different and we tried to change everything as much as possible. They monitored the whole change. They saw us taking all our equipment out of the one place and going to the next place and dumping it somewhere else and watched the whole process, even going to the agent to find a new flat and so on. They saw it all. So essentially we were caught red-handed and they had also seen us, followed us to this place and watched us doing all these postings and things so they could alert the Post Office to watch for all this stuff. So for the last couple of postings that we did most of just went straight to the police. They showed us these great piles of stuff, "Look what we've got, here's all your stuff, you guys have been wasting your time."
POM How were you treated?
TJ Not too badly because we were caught red-handed like this and in fact we were the last ANC cell operating in Cape Town and they knew it so there was no real torture. They held us in solitary confinement for a month or two, so that was our torture, a lot of interrogation that went on late into the night and sometimes right through the night.
POM Interrogation, long interrogation?
TJ Yes, long interrogation with threats and all sorts of things but there was no actual torture, no actual beating. A lot of threats of that and all kinds of threats about our families and all the rest of it. When we got arrested, and they arrested a whole ring of our friends, we had flat mates and girl friends and all that sort of thing, they brought all those people in and kept them for a week until they realised they knew nothing. But they could use that as a kind of threat against us, "We're going to keep these people for ever if you don't speak", and so we spoke. It was quite clear from what they told us and what they showed us that they knew everything.
POM But you couldn't tell them really very much could you other than - ?
TJ Well we couldn't tell them all the details. We could still hold back a lot of stuff and we certainly didn't tell them anything about going to East Germany or anything like that and I don't think they knew about that because it was all kind of secret stuff at that end. I obviously didn't talk about the plans we'd made with the ANC, we just talked about what they knew and that seemed to be enough to satisfy them. I mean they just had a case to make and they had quite a strong case. They had all the stuff. All they had to do was get us into the court and throw all the stuff in front of the judge and for sure we'd get a long sentence and they weren't really too worried about all the other details. It didn't really matter to them. I think they had enough to make their case.
So we appeared in court and our legal advisers said the best thing we can do is not to challenge them and not even to plead not guilty, which was against our natural feeling. Even if we know we've been caught red-handed it's best to say you're not guilty and make them prove everything and they said there's no point, the way the law works in this country you're guilty and we have to prove our innocence and they've got all that stuff. In fact it was written into those pieces of legislation they used against us, the Terrorism Act and the Internal Security Act at the time.
POM What was that?
TJ Was that you were actually guilty until you can prove that you are innocent and you can't prove you're innocent when they've got all this stuff. So it's really just a formula. You just stand there in court and they say all this stuff and even your sentence is not really based on what they see in front of them or on what you've done, it's just based on precedent. There were some other guys who did the same thing before you and they got ten years and that wasn't sufficient to deter you so therefore you must get ten years plus X sort of thing. That's the way it works so it was all just a bit of a joke.
We went through the court process and sure enough my sentence was twelve years and Stephens was eight years and the reason why he got less was simply because for a long part of the period we were working here he couldn't find a job in Cape Town so he had to go up to Jo'burg to work so he was out of the loop for a while. So I was sort of the key terrorist as it were and I got the twelve years. They sent us off to Pretoria Prison which was the prison for white political prisoners in those days. The black prisoners went to Robben Island.
POM Was that C-Max, what they called the one as you go into Pretoria today, the prison on the left hand side?
TJ It's part of that same whole big Pretoria Prison complex, Pretoria Central. There are whole number of prisons there. There's the C-Max, they called it Beverley Hills in those days, after Hollywood I think. It was the section where the condemned prisoners went, yes the maximum security part, then there was Pretoria Central which was just like a white prison, then there were all kinds of other prisons there. There was a black prison and a women's prison and our prison was actually called Pretoria Prison which was a separate prison in that complex. It was a very small prison, the political prisoners were there in the one section of the prison and the rest of it were cells for awaiting trial prisoners, people who had not been granted bail. It was a small group, there were ten people, all white political prisoners, all ANC people which in a way was good for us because it meant there was a coherent group and all comrades as it were.
POM Were you allowed to intermix with them?
TJ We were allowed to intermix with each other. It was quite a cushy prison actually. Probably our conditions were the best maybe of any prison in the country. It was a small prison but we had a prison yard and there was a concrete area which was like our tennis court, we could play games on it. We had a garden, we had a nice lawn, trees there and fellow prisoners could grow things and it was relatively pleasant. The regime was quite relaxed and the kind of ethos was you leave us alone and we'll leave you alone and everybody got on on that basis and it was, as I say, fairly relaxed. During the day on weekdays we worked in the workshop, there was a carpentry workshop, and we had to build prison furniture. There was no pressure on us, we just casually built the stuff as slowly as we could and the warders put no pressure on us, they just used to fall asleep on the job and everybody was happy. The food was relatively good, I mean it wasn't good but I think not too bad. There were no real complaints in that department. We were locked in our cells, individual cells, we each had individual cells. The cells were very small, they were three metres by one or two metres, about half the size of this room, perhaps a bit shorter, maybe up to about here lengthwise and perhaps as wide as from that door to the end of the bed or something. There was just space for a bed and on the other side there was a little table and a cupboard. There was a toilet and a washbasin. We had hot and cold running water and, as I say, the toilet, and a proper bed to sleep on with a mattress and all that. It wasn't very uncomfortable. Again it was quite relaxed. You would be woken in the morning at six o'clock or something like that and then you had an hour to get ready. They let us out of our cells at seven in the morning. We'd go down and do a bit of exercise, running round the yard, do whatever you like. Then you'd have breakfast and then most of the day we'd work in this workshop until about four o'clock and then we'd have our evening meal after that and I think lock up was about four thirty or five p.m., I've forgotten all the times, it's all in my book if you want to look it up.
POM Were you allowed access to books?
TJ Yes we had books, we were allowed to buy our own books. I think each person could buy two books a month and if you take that back for ten years, an average of about ten or twelve prisoners, there was quite a substantial library there of relatively good books. We were allowed to buy records, those were the days before CDs. We had a vast collection of music there and in our cells we had speakers but the record player was down in the administration offices so at night the warder, we would give him a selection of records to play and he would play records for us at night so we'd have this very good music we could listen to. They allowed us to have magazines, obviously non-political stuff, no newspapers of course. We even had daily broadcasts, of course heavily censored stuff, they cut out all the news, newsy news, it could be anything, just local news of no political consequence. They would play this for us in the evening after lock up, say for an hour or something and then we would get our music. Of course there was a bit of smuggling going on because there were black prisoners who used to come and clean the prison and we were able to smuggle tobacco, it was kind of a general currency in the prison system, for bits of newspapers that they would steal out of rubbish bins and so on. We were quite well informed of what was going on, we would smuggle these bits of newspapers in between us.
POM Would you talk to each other?
TJ Well during the day we were all together so we could talk. At night we couldn't no, you could shout to each other but you couldn't obviously talk about anything political. We developed systems of passing messages from cell to cell and that kind of thing so if you wanted to say something that they shouldn't be hearing, because we always suspected that the place was bugged, whether it was or not I don't know, but I think that's a fair assumption to make, it's a good assumption even if it's not.
So prison life wasn't too bad, it wasn't great. Of course it was the loss of freedom and all that sort of stuff. You could only receive a letter or two a month of 500 words and you could only have I've forgotten all the details now, it's all in my book, but you could only have a visitor or two a month for half an hour and then of course those were all monitored so again you couldn't talk politics or anything, you could only talk about family affairs. So it wasn't too bad in all. We used to have our own political discussions amongst ourselves at the weekends and we could play sport at weekends, read books and we had book clubs where we could discuss books and we could discuss music and all kinds of things like that, so we discussed a lot of things, kept the dialogue going. We did discuss the news, the bits that we were getting from the smuggled newspapers and things and most people had some sort of codes they could use with their visitors to talk about what's happening out there. In other words you'd just have a set of names to mean something else, word codes that you could say things that would mean something to the other side and they'd pick it up and you'd sort of develop those word codes and you could get in bits and pieces, current events and things like that.
Well that was prison life and as you know three of us escaped from prison. I don't want to go into too much detail about the prison escape because I don't think that's really what you want to talk about.
POM It's in your book.
TJ You can read my book.
POM I've been looking for it and the only person that I found had a copy of it is Sue de Villiers.
TJ Yes, the book is available from the Mayibuye Centre. Well it used to be, I don't know if they have any copies left.
POM I'm going to be there on all my stuff is going to be archived.
TJ Yes, so if you're there or in contact with them you could just ask them if they have a copy of it. Occasionally people see copies in bookshops but very seldom. You might sometimes pick one up at the Robben Island, at the Gateway there where the boat goes to Robben Island. I have been told that people have bought it there but whether they have it there all the time but apart from that it's on the Internet the whole thing, on the ANC web site. If you search around there I am sure you can find it, you can search for my name or the name of the book or something and you'll find it.
POM After you escaped did you get out of the country as quickly as possible?
TJ Yes, well I don't really want to go into the whole details but after the escape we immediately left the country. We escaped via Swaziland. We managed to get to Swaziland and then in Swaziland we made contact with the ANC. They took us out to Mozambique. That was an illegal border crossing and once in Mozambique as a result of the border crossing we actually got caught crossing but it turned out to be not a very serious offence. So the Mozambique government took us into custody as it were, but it wasn't really custody. They put us up in a very nice block of flats and provided us with food and clothing and everything we needed so we were like guests of the state as it were rather than prisoners because they were quite excited by the fact that we had escaped from SA, that they were doing something against the regime.
POM What year are we talking about?
TJ We'd escaped on 11 December 1979, so this was a few days later, the middle of December. We were in Mozambique for a little while and we were interviewed by the ANC there and they gave us a lot of paper and a typewriter and said type up your story, we want to hear all about it, which was a good thing to do because that served as the basis of my book. When you come to write a book years later it's very good to have all the facts and the sequence of events like that, although you still remember them years later you can't remember in which order they came and the little details you forget. So I had it all written down and it was just a report, we did this and then we did that and we did that and we did it like this, it was just the bare facts without any sort of subjective stuff in between.
As I say we met all the ANC big nobs in Mozambique.
POM Who was there are the time? Zuma? Was Zuma there?
TJ I can't remember all the people we met because they didn't mean anything to us at the time. I know we met Joe Slovo there, he's the one who made an impact because we knew his name. We met a lot of others who because we'd never been actually in contact with the ANC we didn't know any of these names. In SA you never read about these people. They decided, no, we'd have to get out of this country, it was too dangerous because sooner or later someone will know that we're there and South Africans being the way they were they'd just come in by helicopter and capture us and take us back so they thought no, let's get them as far away as possible so let's move us out to Angola which is about as far away as they could think of getting us at the time.
They flew us to Luanda where we again met a whole lot of other ANC people who were there at the time and, yes, we were there for a few weeks and during that time they took us out to some of the training camps so that we could talk to the comrades in the bush, just as a kind of inspirational thing. Here are two white comrades, a very strange thing in those days, come and tell us their story and it was very well received and a lot of cheers and they'd sing for us and that kind of thing.
POM You were on a lecture tour?
TJ A sort of lecture tour to the camps but it was very inspiring for the people who were in those camps there. Then they decided to fly us to Zambia because that was the HQ of the ANC at the time where they wanted to reveal us to the world press on January 8th 1980 which was the anniversary of the ANC. So on that day they organised this big press conference without saying what it was and invited all the world's press there. We were introduced by the President of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, and we made this statement about how pleased we are to be free and gave some very brief details of how we'd escaped but no actual details of how we got out or anything like that. We distributed this statement to the press and pictures of the prison and all this kind of thing, showing the roof, how we got out of it. SA didn't like it at all. Then immediately that day after the press conference they flew us out because this was a big exposé kind of thing, flew us out to Tanzania because they thought it was too dangerous to keep us around there. Then again we were in Tanzania for quite a while. In Dar Es Salaam, there was another ANC office there.
POM You were in Dar Es Salaam for?
TJ I was in Dar Es Salaam for quite a few weeks. Our task there was really to get some documents because as you know when we left the country we had nothing but the shirts on our backs and no documents at all. The ANC had been able to move us around simply because we were the ANC and they had relations with all these governments. It took me the longest because the other two I escaped with, Stephen had access to a British passport, his parents were British not South African and the other chap was actually French, Alex Moumbaris, so he could get a French passport and they got those pretty quickly and flew off leaving me there with no access to anything. I had no right to any other country's passport so I got one of these what we call United Nations refugee passports which was essentially some document that's issued under the Geneva Convention or whatever for refugees. That gave you a right to travel. In fact it wasn't such a bad document in those days, it was somewhat better than a SA passport because you couldn't go anywhere on one of those being the pariah of the world at that time. So it wasn't really such a bad document but it took a while to get it, it took almost a month, I was stuck in this place called Dar Es Salaam which to me well I just couldn't handle the heat in the place, it was so hot and humid I just found it unbearable. Anyway, I eventually arrived in London sometime in January.
POM In Dar Es Salaam you were just sitting there?
TJ Just sitting there, lying on the beach. Basically just waiting, not doing anything, just applying for documents. I got to Britain on this document and the British weren't very happy to see me at all but they let me come in. I think they gave me just a few days to be there and then some representations were made by the Anti-Apartheid Movement and they had some quite high powered figures who managed to wangle it.
POM This would be now in 1980?
TJ 1980, the end of January. I got an extension, a short extension to stay there but to get more solid documents they had to get me out of the country for a while and then apply for everything outside the country. You couldn't really do it inside. I was sent off on a speaking tour to Canada. I was there for a few months, went right round Canada on a speaking tour. That was quite an experience for me, first chance to see that part of the world and learning how to handle public speaking. I was quite a celebrity and did a lot of radio talking and television and all that kind of stuff. Then I came back to London, can't remember exactly when but it was some months later.
POM Under a different passport?
TJ The same passport but from a different but anyway I had papers
POM Did you come back under your own name?
TJ Yes my own name but I had some kind of residence where I could stay for an extended period. I think I had to keep renewing this thing every year or something. I can't remember the details now but I think the British themselves issued me their own version of the same document, United Nations thing, which made my presence there more permanent. I could stay there for ever as a refugee although they would never give me a British passport.
That was the beginning of my life in London. I was in London from that time, January/February 1980 with this interlude in Canada and a few trips all round the place until 1991 after the unbanning of the ANC. I suppose the next part of the story really starts when I was in London because obviously when I was back in London I was in touch with the ANC again.
POM When you were in London did your visa or your passport or whatever allow you to work?
TJ Yes, I could work. The first job was actually working for the ANC. I just worked in the office there doing a general office job and helping with their publications and things but then I got a job with the International Defence & Aid Fund, you've probably come across them a few times, which was the outfit that well it had various aspects to it. One of their things was doing publications about SA, they had a printing house and they had a regular publication.
POM You were working in the ANC office.
TJ OK. Then I started working for the International Defence & Aid Fund and as I say they had their various programmes. One of them was the publications and the other was the funding of political trials and prisoners in SA. In fact our own trial was financed by this International Defence & Aid Fund, but that's a whole almost another story in itself, how they managed to smuggle all this money into the country. They did very good work and it was quite a large organisation. I was actually involved in the publications side, doing a lot of writing for them, researching, writing books. They had published books about all aspects of apartheid and the life in SA, exposing the conditions there. One of the first books I had to do was writing about SA prisons and prison life and that was quite interesting. I did other books on education in SA and farm labour and all kinds of stuff but it was a good place to work because I had access to enormous amounts of information about SA. All the daily newspapers were catalogued and cut up and filed and every single publication, just about anything that was published on SA, they had a brilliant library and everything so I was very well informed.
That was in the daytime. I worked for this outfit, it was just a normal job, nine to five job, received a salary and it was a fairly decent salary, I could live normally and go away on holidays every year. But I was still working doing part-time work for the ANC in the evenings and so on and my job was to train people in the kind of things that we'd been trained in originally in 1975, propaganda stuff, using our experience and developing on what we'd learnt in our own practice and based on what we'd been taught and all the other things that people had learnt over the years. As I said I always felt that the main thing was the communications, it was the main problem, sort of holding back all the groups working inside. The people would receive all this brilliant training, come abroad and receive this training and then they're sent back on their own. There you are, here are your instructions, go and do it and you're essentially on your own, there's no political feedback, there's no real contact at all. You can just issue these very terse kind of instructions and requests for money or whatever equipment you needed and you couldn't really run an underground army that way as far as we were concerned. At that stage the whole situation was
POM You're talking about 'we', who are you talking about?
TJ Well, 'we' in the broader sense of the ANC and people working in it and the situation now we're talking about, the early eighties, it developed
POM The ANC is beginning to realise that lack of communications was
TJ It was a serious factor holding back the entire struggle. As I say, the whole situation was different from the early seventies to the early eighties and mid eighties where the whole struggle had escalated to a much higher level. The ANC now had all these thousands of people who had left after the 1976 uprisings and uMkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's military wing, had grown and thousands of people were being trained and sent over to the Soviet Union and East Germany, wherever they were being trained. They had all these military camps and all these people were being sent back into the country and from our experience they were almost in the same position. Here, Comrade, here's your gun, you are instructed to go back and carry on the armed struggle. Our concern became how do you run and how do you operate an underground war by remote control without any contact with your soldiers? It's like running a war with no communications and no-one's ever won a war like that. The prime weapon in any war is your communications. You have to communicate with your soldiers. I think I wrote about it in that article.
This was an early concern for us because we had that experience of trying to operate underground and although our task was merely to produce and distribute propaganda material, in a way armed propaganda was the same thing, just using different means. The problems faced by the cadres inside the country were exactly the same. Here's your stuff and here's your mission, go in there and do it. There's no contact. This is why you got all kinds of strange things happening, people putting bombs in restaurants and things that were actually counter-active. They had had no real effect because why blow up a Wimpy Bar or something? It backfires on you, it doesn't get you any support at all. Often these things were really carried out by people who out of sheer frustration they'd go back in there, they'd been given a mission and then find they can't actually do it or some of their comrades would get arrested, there would be no contact with their handlers, their commanders and so on, and there you are sitting with a pile of explosives, no instructions, what do you do next? So you pick an easy target and you blow up the first thing you can and you're not receiving any political advice or guidance or whatever. You're on your own.
So we became very interested. When I say 'we', again it's the team of people I was working with in the communications and around the early eighties this organisation I was working for, International Defence & Aid, they were quite progressive in the sense that they could see that this new technology was going to be good for publishing and so on so we bought into it and started using computers from the early eighties. By today's standards these were hardly computers but you could type things on them and you could print them out and you could ultimately produce publications. It was a big step forward and I was in it right from the beginning. The PC itself came on the market in 1982 I think it was so right from that time when the first PCs became available. In those days computers couldn't really do an awful lot. You'd have a word processor and that's all it could do for that moment while you were running the word processor. So if you wanted to do anything else you had to learn how to programme it yourself.
We got into that, learnt how to programme these things and immediately we could see this application. Whereas before we'd done all this coding by hand, adding numbers together and doing all kinds of strange things with books and so on, why not get the computer to do this. You type in your message and it's done and you press a button and it enciphers the thing and produces a string of non-readable characters. Well that wasn't too difficult to accomplish but doing that is only the first step, it just cuts out that manual coding system but it doesn't lead you any further but that was quite a big step forward for us. Again, there was no immediate application because well it's one thing having a computer but who's got a computer in SA? Most of the ANC operatives were black and it would look very strange for them to return to SA with a computer or even to have one in a black township, mostly they don't even have electricity let alone computers.
POM I'll just read some of your articles and ask you to comment.
"In the mid 1980s there was a great deal of soul-searching taking place in the ANC. The underground struggle had never really taken off. There was little to show for years of struggle. There were hundreds of activists in the enemy's jails and the loss of tons of precious weaponry."
So essentially you're saying that in your view, your analysis, until the mid 1980s the armed struggle as such was more myth than reality. It wasn't really achieving very much.
TJ No, on a political level the ANC would never admit that.
POM Do you think the ANC has a problem admitting this to itself?
TJ I think, well I don't know what the situation would be now, there might be people who would be prepared to say that now but certainly not at the time, you would never say that. I think maybe they did in closed circles. I think I mention in that article in 1985 there was this Kabwe Conference where these things were very closely debated and it's obvious from the conclusions that were drawn and from the actions they took afterwards that things weren't really going according to schedule. In fact that's where the whole Vula Operation came out of that because it was clear that
POM How did you first make contact with Mac?
TJ Well I knew Mac before that, even before anything to do with Operation Vula. I had met him quite early on, in fact I think we may have met in Lusaka at that time when we were on our way out in 1980. I was working at this Defence & Aid Fund and we were monitoring it very closely and as I said we were using computers to record every little bit of information so every little armed attack we recorded it and they would be categorised and the type of attacks and whether they were successful or not and what kind of target it was and all those sort of things, it was accurately recorded. So we had this full data base of every single action, at least reported action carried out by MK. Of course we were also monitoring every arrest and every political trial and we had these data bases of everybody being arrested and we could see all these names of thousands of people being arrested in these ongoing trials, people being hanged and all sorts of stuff and there was more activity on that side than on the MK side. There were all these little actions and none of them really amounted to terribly much. There were some very daring actions but they were all of this nature that I explain here, they were all a sort of hit and run operation. People would come in, have their instructions, sometimes they were very boldly carried out, the attack on Sasol and all that, but that was it. They would come in and do that and run away and off you go again and there was no sort of follow up, no kind of build up or anything, just these constant little pinpricks on the regime. That's all they were. It's not as if you brought anything to a standstill or you disrupted the electricity network or the water articulation or whatever or destroyed a transport system or anything like that. It would just be blow up a railway line here or bring down a pylon there or blow up a substation there, nothing that could grow or be part of a military strategy, a plan. There's nothing.
You could clearly see this if you were monitoring the actions. The ANC of course were shouting from the rooftops, the armed struggle was escalating, which it was. The number of incidents was all the time going up but so also were the number of trials and arrests and things. We published lists of arrests every month as accurately as we could from newspapers and obviously a lot of them were never recorded and people were dying at the hands of torturers and things and we would never know about that. For the number of people being arrested it was disproportionate to the number of actions being carried out. It was a lot of people would be arrested and great piles of weapons being seized by the enemy. As I say there was an increase, a steady increase of actions.
POM So you had more actions but a high degree of unco-ordination.
TJ A high degree of unco-ordination. You could never say the armed struggle is now developing in this direction. This is their military strategy, it's clear that they're trying to hit whatever, the transport system or the water system or this particular industry or that to try and cripple the economy. They were all what we called armed propaganda, hit something that just makes a big bang and there's a big cloud and everybody thinks wow the ANC did that and it's in the newspaper and really that's what it was. It was just like our leaflet bombs. Even if the leaflet bomb went off and the whole lot landed there and the police picked up the whole lot and nobody got any, the fact that it was reported in the newspaper that was the important thing. The ANC strikes! The ANC is there, it's alive and living and people were being reminded of that. So that was really more important, we could have just used blank papers in fact, just with the word ANC on it or whatever. That's really what the armed struggle amounted to was just another form of propaganda, more or less what we were doing, posting it out and leaflet bombs, it was just raising it to a higher level. It never really became a real military thing in terms of broad strategy. I think any military analyst looking at the actions, looking at our data base could say, yes, I can see a definite pattern here, I can see what the ANC's trying to do. You couldn't see it. It's just like the regime kept saying, it's pinpricks, and I think that's really what it amounted to.
Obviously the propaganda was important because the rest of the world was looking and saying, oh God, there are bombs going off in the street, we don't want to go there. So tourism took a plummet and it did have an effect, it had an effect but it wasn't a military effect, it was the thought of a big car bomb in the centre Pretoria and it was in the newspapers and you were reminded of
POM The government couldn't control it.
TJ Yes, they couldn't control it and on the other hand it wasn't very inspiring for people on the ground there, the black population. They thought the regime always boasted that they'd got the situation under control and the ANC was out there, don't worry about them, and it was clear that it wasn't because all these things were going on and escalating all the time. So there was that. It did have an impact. But then a lot of other things had an impact, the international boycott and all these things together. It's difficult to say any one was the major contributing factor.
The ANC at the time kept talking about armed struggle, armed struggle, this kind of thing, this is where it's really happening, this is what we're all about. The armed struggle is an armed struggle and they gave credit to all these other things on the side, the boycotts and the anti-apartheid struggles and all the other forms of struggle against apartheid and the publications, films and all the rest of it. Credit was given to that stuff. The ANC itself armed struggle was what it was all about.
I don't want to diminish it. Maybe things were achieved under very, very difficult conditions but to my mind a lot of it, as I said in this article, was brought about a lot of the problems of the armed struggle were created (I don't know if created is the right word) but the result of the poor communications. We were trying to run this army, this force and this whole struggle, underground struggle, from outside. Your entire leadership was outside the country either in Zambia or in surrounding countries or moving around or in London or Moscow, wherever they were and they were trying to run this struggle by remote control. How do you do it without decent communications?
I think I put my case there, you can have one army that's bigger than another and if the one's got communications and it can tell its soldiers where to be deployed, pick out the enemy's weaknesses, go there and go there and act together, and you're actually talking to your soldiers you can tell them what to do and when to strike. You can have a huge army with the biggest spears and the biggest guns and all the rest of it but if you can't talk to your soldiers, you can't muster them in the right place, you can't tell them when to act, then it doesn't matter how big your army is, you're not going to win the battle. I think any military analyst or strategist or military person would tell you that communications is like the number one factor. It's more important than the guns.
POM When were you seriously brought in to the business or did you enter it yourself?
TJ Well it is a slow process. As I said my job was to train people. I wasn't training them in military stuff, I was training them basically in the same things that we were doing. A lot of people were now coming out and wanted to be involved, white people, black people, Indians, all kinds of people coming out from SA who had made contact with the ANC in much the same way that we had. Just came out and tried to get in touch and there was a constant stream of people coming out.
POM Coming to London?
TJ A lot of them were coming to London or would probably go to other places as well which I wouldn't have know about. London was like a key place for the ANC. Everybody knew that the London office was one of the biggest. It was probably the safest place to come. The links between SA had always been so strong and if you were leaving it's natural to always go to London as the first port of call. There were offices all over the world but those were very small little operations, one in New York, one in Canada and India and all over the place. These were all just small things and not places where South Africans go to, especially white South Africans. London was the place to go and I was part of a team whose job it was to train these people and I trained them in all the same stuff that we did. I trained them in communications and in security stuff and how to produce these leaflets using our experience and all that sort of thing, and produce these same things and so on.
I started looking at all the communication methods and improving all the things. Again, this was the early eighties before we had started to use the computers. We looked at superior inks and superior ways of doing it and using tapes instead of the post and things like that and more innovative ways of disguising things and trying to speed up the whole process. I think I explained there how we used one of our jobs was well apart from being in this group that were training people I was also part of a committee that was called the Technical Committee whose job it was to come up with technical ideas whenever there was a request for something.
POM This was Ronnie - ?
TJ Ronnie Press. Our Technical Committee was to find interesting ways of disguising things to smuggle stuff back into SA and whatever it was. One of these requests was to come up with a system that people could use in an urban environment to communicate with each other using portable radios but without having to talk to each other using their voices because that could be a give-away. We looked at various systems and we discovered this one where you could use these radios and simply send telephone codes, pick up in the airport and you telephone, when you press the buttons
POM How would you do that? You've got to explain this to me now because this is where you've seen my technical capacity!
TJ All right. In the old days the way you used to dial a telephone number was you used to have a little circular dial and what that did was there would be a current flowing through the circuit and if you, say, dialled a four, you push it around from the four to the end and then the click, click, click, click, back and it would cut the line four times and those four pulses would then be sent down to the telephone company or the Post Office saying that you'd dialled a four. So if you dialled a nine it would send nine pulses which were actually just nine breaks in a line with the result that you'd go down nine times and we'd count nine and that way work out what number you'd dialled. That was a very affirmative system. That was the original telephone system from when Mr Bell invented the telephone and that was the system that operated. But some time, I can't remember, it must have been in the seventies or something, they came up with a more modern way of dialling so instead of cutting the line in this very primitive way you could just send a different tone for each number. So if you press a one it sends a one tone which is much quicker because it just goes beep for that one and if you press a nine it sends a different tone but it takes as long as a one whereas the old system, well one was very short because it was just one click, if you dialled a zero it would actually have to click ten times, it would have to go all the way around so it was very slow to dial a number. Now you had what they called touch tone phones which we just take for granted these days, you know when you press the number if goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.
I suppose at that time it was the transition period when they were introducing this new type of dialling system so if you wanted to use the new system on an old phone you could buy a little box like this which was just the telephone keypad and then on the other side it had a little speaker and you could just hold that against the mouthpiece and you'd telephone and you could press these buttons and it would make those same tones that would travel through the telephone and dial a number. You could use this for various services that were being offered by banks, for example, where you could access your account. So you'd dial the number, get through to the bank and you'd hear a voice saying, "Please enter your code", and you'd just punch in the code and the only way you could do it was with one of these devices. Obviously the old click, click, click system couldn't work like that. So you would use this for banking. You could buy these things anywhere, an electronic shop or something.
So we thought, well if you can send these tones as numbers, they come out the other end as numbers, you could actually use this to send a code. We devised a system so if you held this thing on the telephone and you punched these numbers the person on the other side holding on the ear piece of the telephone picking up these tones, it was like a little microphone running into an electronic box, they could interpret that tone back into a number. So if the person on that end pressed the one, the other end it would show up as a little one on the screen, like a calculator screen. That's how it worked and I can't remember how we discovered it but this stuff was available at the time. I think if you were interested in electronics you could see it there in a catalogue, oh that's interesting, let's try that. In fact I think somebody was selling a system like this that you could buy or something, I can't remember exactly the details.
Anyway, we adapted this thing to our own purpose so you could punch in these numbers and it would come out the other end, so we thought if you can do that why not just record those numbers at the other end. So we experimented just by holding this microphone on the earpiece of the telephone while the first person punches in the numbers and sends these tones through, it comes onto the tape recorder and then you take the tape recorder home from the telephone, which could be a public telephone, and you simply play it back into your other device with a microphone and it shows you the numbers. So that was the first step. So now we had well for ourselves we could code these numbers very quickly on a computer, still only on the screen or onto a printout. At least that was a big step as you could first of all type in your message, you just press a button on the computer and it produces a string of numbers and now you could, instead of even going to the public telephone, you could just record those tones onto a tape recorder. So you've got a string of numbers and you just type in those numbers on your keypad, record it onto the tape recorder. Now you take the tape recorder to a telephone and you play it back into the telephone just out of there and it plays into the telephone and goes to the other side to a person with a similar tape recorder or onto an answering machine.
POM Each number would stand for?
TJ Each number would just be a part of your code. Your code is now, you've turned your letters into numbers through a mathematical process so you can only send numbers because there's only one to nine on the keypad anyway, or one to ten, ten numbers. You had to convert the characters into numbers. Now you could send these and once we'd grasped this concept it actually opened up a whole new way of communicating because this was before the days of networks and Internet and all that stuff but there were telephones so now you could actually send messages from anywhere in the world to another telephone just by sending these tones. We experimented doing this between London and Zambia and of course throughout the UK and it seemed to work pretty well. It was still very slow because it was a manual process, you had to punch in these numbers and all that but at least the coding part, the tediousness, was taken out of it. You could just produce this string of numbers and you just had to type it in and you could now send these numbers anywhere in the world and pick them up and send them to an answering machine.
In fact we trained some people in this and sent them back into the country. This was nothing to do with Vula at all. We just gave them one of these little tone pads and a tape recorder and this other device for decoding the tones back into numbers and it actually worked. It was now something, you could actually communicate with someone. It was still a slow process but you could do it by telephone so that same message that might still be only 300Ks long could be communicated within a very short period of time. You didn't have to
POM 1 2 8 7 6 4 5
TJ Whatever, yes.
POM So I could take that number and translate it into a message?
TJ Yes, well, but it started off as plain English, the next step is a computer to produce a string of numbers, the string of numbers are punched into the tape recorder through this little tone pad and it's recorded as tones on there and then the tones are transmitted through the telephone in some way or even sometimes we used to just send that tape as itself so we'd disguise those tones, first put a whole lot of music on it and then the tones would be at a counter number, 525 or something that you agree on, the tones would appear or you would just simply put the tones somewhere on the tape and the person would have to find it, and then more music. So you'd send that in as a present to somebody, it's just music and if the enemy picked it up and decided to have a listen they would just hear music and even if there were some strange tones half way through they probably wouldn't worry about it, they're not going to listen to the whole thing anyway. So that was the first way, just posting it and although that's still slow you've now got a longer message you can send and a safe way of doing it.
POM The person in the country would have to know what the numbers stood for.
TJ Yes, they would have the same code that you were using. We had various versions of this thing working. The version we had working in Britain between us was computerised at both ends but the version we had working with SA was computerised at our end and at the other end it was still manual because we couldn't get people computers to decipher it.
It was beginning to come slightly hi-tech but most of the people that we were training were white South Africans. I'm not saying that they're more clever than black people but most of them were sort of people who, like ourselves, were concerned white South Africans who had either university degrees or were familiar with this kind of stuff and it was not strange to them and they could understand it. A lot of the black comrades we had, I don't want to put them down, but they didn't have the same opportunities and this stuff was really a bit beyond them. It was before the computer generation, people didn't take to this stuff very easily.
It actually worked quite well. We had some experience of this thing working. As I say in the UK we had a system operating that was completely computerised where we could send these tones directly from a computer, I can't remember exactly how we did it. I think still on tapes but we could play the tape directly into the other person's answering machine and then from that answering machine directly into the decoding machine or even directly into the computer. It was becoming like a system in itself, almost computer talking to computer. In fact we did develop a system very far along those lines.
Ronnie Press was working at this Polytechnic in London, which is a kind of university. We had access to people who knew how to design and create their own electronic devices, all the equipment and everything there and all the stuff you needed to do this and he developed his own modem which was like an electronic thing that you could connect to your computer, that did all this automatically. So all you did was type in your message, the computer deciphered it. I think then you made a telephonic connection with the other side and it would go out of the computer into this device and this device would turn it into tones and send them out through the telephone to the other guy's telephone, which was now answering the telephone, into his modem and straight into the computer and it appears in plain English on his screen. So now it's almost you typing here and he can see what you're typing that side. You were talking to the person but the whole thing was encrypted all the way through using this phone system.
We had a whole variety of different systems that were either connecting immediately or could do it through answering machines or through public telephones where you take this, but the same basic principle. By developing this modem, this device that did the conversion from numbers into tones it took out the whole manual process of having to press in these numbers which was also prone to error because you were looking at this long string of boring numbers and it was so easy to make an error. We used to split them up into groups of five because that's about as much as you can remember at one time, five numbers, and then you type it in and then you go to the next line and type in another five. Still it's very tedious and after a few hundred of these you get very bored. The computer connected to this device automated the whole thing. You could either send those tones down the line or record them directly onto a tape recorder and of course much, much faster than you could possibly do it by hand, very, very fast such that these tones were coming through so fast that it just sounded like a continuous stream almost.
We developed that and it was our own unique system. No-one else, I suppose other people were not crazy enough to use this technology because it wasn't ever designed for that. What it was designed for was all the telephone systems, making one telephone connect to another one. But it was in the days when there were no networks and no Internet. It was a way of doing it. In effect we made our own communication network using this sort of thing.
I think it was about this stage where we made contact with Mac and he came to see us because we kept developing all these new systems of coding and all these funny things and showing them to our leaders but we failed to impress them because not because they were hostile to this stuff but because, as I said, when you don't understand the stuff
POM The people in Lusaka?
TJ Yes, I think we took it to Lusaka to show them and we gave them a demonstration of how they could communicate with London. Everybody thought it was grand but they couldn't see an application for it because you can't give someone in SA the stuff, they can't have a computer in a township for a start. There's no electricity or whatever. It just wouldn't look right for someone to have a computer, the news about it would get out. So they said, well it's grand, it's nice and this is the way things are going to go but no-one really bought into it. Everything was still a bit crude and the programmes, the computers were all very basic in those days. It was OK for us boffins to do it because we understood what was happening.
POM So did Mac approach you to hear about what you were doing?
TJ I think the word got around that we were messing about with this stuff. It was Ronnie who went to Lusaka, he frequently went out for other business so I think he may have shown it to Mac at some stage. But anyway, the world got around that there were these guys in London who were messing around with this stuff and had developed some sort of unique systems and things. Yes, we were approached by Mac, he just came to visit us one day and said, "We heard you guys are experimenting with this stuff. We're developing, we've got this new operation under way." Of course he gave no details of what it was about but he vaguely said that they were planning something and, "We need to have good communications and we're looking into all kinds of systems and would be interested to see what you guys have got and maybe we could set up something between London and Lusaka and they could experiment and see what we can develop."
I don't think what we were doing was the only thing they were looking at. They looked at all kinds of stuff. I don't know if you've met or interviewed Conny Braam of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement but she was also a big name in Vula, I think she appears quite a few times. She was also investigating stuff and came across some very interesting equipment that you could buy which were little pocket computers like this which were in a way similar to the systems that we were developing but they were very neat in that they were just a little kind of calculator thing that you could do everything on it with a little screen that flipped up and a keyboard you could type in your message.
POM Like a palm computer?
TJ Yes, something like that. It actually had a keyboard and you could type in English and then you just pressed the button, put in your key word and it would encipher this message. It was like a little miniature computer. It was quite exciting. It also had its own built in communication facility which was simply on the back of it, a little rubber ring, little speaker which doubled up as a microphone so if you were sending a message the first thing you had to do, of course, was just call somebody manually, just call them, and then you converse and say, "Right, I'm going to send something", and you would hold this device on the telephone, press a button and it would transmit it's message which was just like a series of computer tones. The other similar unit at the other end would record these sounds, which was the encrypted message, and then you would know and you would say, "Decipher this message", and type in your key word and it would turn it back into plain language.
POM This system developed to more sophisticated levels?
TJ We looked at this equipment, this commercial equipment that was available and, yes, it worked very well in Europe, it was great and it would have been fine but we had our doubts whether it would work over the long distances that we were talking about and between countries like SA and Zambia. As you know the point of this whole mission was to allow the operatives in the country to communicate not so much with each other inside, internally, but to communicate outside the country. The telephone systems in the surrounding countries are a bit backward, so to speak, and it didn't work very well. We found this ourselves by taking computers down to Zambia and trying out a regular conventional computer communication using modems, just doing it the proper way you're supposed to do it and it just didn't work between Lusaka and London because there was just so much crackle and interference on the line because the phones were so bad. The systems which worked fine between London and Bristol, absolutely perfect, you'd get an error free message, we took them down there and the one computer just didn't hear the other one, it was like it wasn't there. You had all kinds of problems like echo on the line and all sorts of things, thunderstorms in summer and God knows what. It just didn't work.
Although these devices that Conny Braam had sourced were very nice and worked very well in Europe and even between European countries, we tested between Holland and the UK, it worked fine, absolutely fine. Then we took one to Lusaka to test it out and it just didn't work at all. It was just to weak and fiddly, couldn't blast through all that crackle and stuff. Again, it was just like there was nothing there. The one machine just didn't recognise the other one.
So we needed something else and we tested this phone thing and it worked because it worked on a different technology. It was a technology designed specifically for dialling telephones. These tones were very loud and it could just blast through all this crackle and the message would get through, not always absolutely perfect, you could still get some errors and things but it did work. We tested out just the manual system that we'd given to people in the country and we tested out the computerised version and of course the version they wanted was the computerised version because nobody wanted the manual thing because although it was an advance from the old times it still was manual, it was too slow, too cumbersome and actually put you off communicating whereas the computerised system was fun and exciting and it was all fast and done by the damn computer.
POM At this point are you working for Mac?
TJ No, not working for Mac. I worked for this International Defence & Aid Fund until I think it was 1986. That was six years or so. Then I joined the ANC, well I always was training people but on a part time basis, but because of the constant flow of people I just got a bit fed up with the job at IDA, it was just a conventional job and I wanted to be more involved in things. The ANC also asked me to come and work for them because there was just such a flow of these people we couldn't cope. It just became a full time job, it was just morning till night, I was training people in all this stuff, as I say, not just in the communications but in all the propaganda stuff and security and the whole operation, the whole way of doing things. It involved quite a lot and we developed some very sophisticated stuff about security and we gave people very good training, hands on training, and we tried to monitor what the other side was using as well, the kind of equipment, and we'd study books and things about surveillance and all this kind of stuff. We trained people very thoroughly in surveillance methods and bugging equipment and all this sort of thing and how this thing is used, not so much to use it themselves but how the other side monitors them so that people are aware of how telephones are bugged and how to know if it's being bugged, how bugs are used and where to look for them and all this kind of stuff. We had examples to show them how these things could work. We'd even go and bug telephones and show them this is how it works and this is what it can do and how sensitive it is just so people really understood this stuff and it's not just theoretical or something in a book.
We taught people how to make these leaflet bombs and we developed a whole technology to a very high level using electronic timers and all kinds of things, a very sophisticated thing. We kept getting all kinds of odd requests from the ANC, for radio equipment I don't really want to go into all that.
POM Would the request be coming from Lusaka at this point?
TJ Yes, Lusaka, technical stuff, often just radio equipment, we need a special high powered radio, gives this distance, and some sort of safe communication system. The technology all the time was getting better and computers were getting better and we were taking advantage of that. We had to really keep in touch with the developments in technology and computers and we used to go to all the trade fairs for computers, see what's the latest stuff and get new ideas and really monitor this stuff I suppose as any business person would. If you're in that business you've got to know what's the latest thing in the business. We had different sort of motives, we weren't just trying to make a profit out of it, we wanted to use this stuff to the best of our ability so we had to know what was there otherwise you don't know what to make.
OK, so Mac came on the scene and, yes, we found it very refreshing because for the first time we had been trying to flog this technology to our leaders for a very long time, shown them all our developments and all the rest of it, no-one really took it up, no-one ever said, OK, make us half a dozen of those and let's try it out. We would be using it ourselves with the people that we were sending back but never much more than just a manual system of the tones. As I said we couldn't really send people back with computers. In a practical sense we got stuck at a certain level, we couldn't really go any further although between ourselves we developed highly sophisticated systems. Computer programmes were getting more and more sophisticated and we had some good stuff that worked not only by telephone but you could use this very technology over radios, you could use it on any radio and telephone, they're very similar mediums.
Mac came on the scene and he told us OK, let's have a look at what you guys are doing, and we set him up with this equipment and we sent him back to Lusaka. So he went back to Lusaka with this stuff and tested it out and found it was good. He also tested the other equipment, the stuff that Connie was finding and it didn't work. We also showed him that a regular computer communication didn't work either. We sent him all the equipment just to try out himself and we could never establish contact between Lusaka and London. Even though the telephone system in SA was reputed to be better, if it didn't work between Lusaka and London we just assumed it wouldn't work between SA. Anyway, whatever communications we were going to have we knew it couldn't go via I mean directly from SA to Lusaka, that was just far too dangerous because the enemy would obviously monitor all telephone calls to Zambia because SA had no links with Zambia whatsoever and the only links obviously would be between ANC people and the leadership in Lusaka.
It was clear from the start that if there were going to be communications from SA it would have to be via somewhere else back to Lusaka and you could count out the rest of Africa, so the next stop was really London because that's where everybody was. It was obvious that communications would have to be in two stages, between SA and London, London being the hub as it were, and then back to Lusaka. I think that had always been obvious even before Operation Vula and everyone knew that there could be never been any direct I think even post or any other kind of communication couldn't really operate between SA and Lusaka, even radio stuff, although it did, there was apparently some communication but if you're broadcasting in that distance then it's clear where it's going. Radio you can't say it's going to that particular place because it goes everywhere in a circle. You broadcast on a radio with a certain strength so they can tell where it's intended to go to but radio broadcasting is very dangerous because it's very easy to track a radio simply by these kinds of methods we established I think maybe in the first world war where you can detect where a radio signal is coming from and if you can detect it from the various points you can hone in to exactly where it's coming, so it's very dangerous to do. Radio communication essentially was out so they were looking for something, some other way, and people were becoming aware that computers could communicate over long distances.
Mac was keen to look at all this technology and, as I say, our system worked although it was a bit crude, not exactly what they were looking for but it was the only system we found that actually worked between Zambia and SA. In a way Mac bought into it but then we showed him some other stuff that we were using in London and we felt that we could adapt this other technology to the methods that we'd been using with this tone method. In other words we could use conventional computer communication but instead of using a telephone line for one computer to talk to another we could use it for that computer to store its data onto a tape recorder. In other words the computer does everything. You type in your message in plain text, it converts it into encrypted data, you can pump that out of the back of the computer into the modem which then turns it into a set of noises, that's what a modem does, it converts digital information into an audible form, not necessarily a set of tones but a set of tone levels at a certain frequency which the other computer can interpret as computer characters. So you could record that onto a tape recorder and once it's on a tape recorder all the methods we'd used with our tone method could be applied because you could either simply take that tape recorder to a telephone and play it into the mouthpiece and the other person the other end could pick it up from the ear-piece or you could do it between a tape recorder and an answering machine and the same in reverse, or you could have computers talking to each other directly. There were all kinds of combinations of this and he wanted to test out this method. I think the article explains how we did it. If you want me to go into more detail I can.
POM No, I have it.
TJ As I say, the technology itself was evolving all the time and we were discovering more and more about computers and our understanding was becoming greater and our programming skills were improving. The whole operation became quite sleek. We had developed programmes that practically did everything. The very first encryption programmes were very crude indeed. It would just be like a command on a screen 'Enter text' and you'd type in something and then when you got to the end you'd press another key and it would say, 'Enter key' and you'd type in your secret password or key or whatever and it would just be a series of steps like that. Now we developed a programme that looked like a real programme on a computer, you had all your function keys and each one did something and you could have a word processor there and type and correct your message and even have bold and underline and all that kind of stuff so it looked like a professional something that you'd typed.
Again, all the commercial programmes themselves were getting better and the computers were getting smaller and the first laptops came out, computers were getting faster and less cumbersome and the technology was evolving and things were getting smaller all the time. The first modems were huge things like this and were very mechanical and now they were very small and you could just plug it onto the back, and all this each time. Once you understand this stuff you begin to see an application for it and we'd experiment and we'd buy the stuff and the ANC was giving us quite a lot of money to experiment with this stuff and we spent a lot of money. They seemed to have a lot of money and we received a lot of money and were able to buy this equipment which relatively speaking was quite expensive. At the time that's what you paid for it but in today's terms it was actually a lot more expensive than what you pay today for a similar thing.
So the technology evolved, the software evolved, everything evolved and, yes, the first laptops came out and we were encouraged to buy these things, not that they told us to buy it, we said these things are available and this is what we need and they said go ahead and buy it. We bought a pair of these Toshiba laptops, very small and neat, and you could fit everything onto one disk and the operating system was actually built into the computer, not on a hard disk, it was actually built in as a ROM. As you switched it on the thing worked, you didn't have to load anything up. It was all very neat and you had a full size screen there and a proper keyboard. This whole thing was very small and flat, not much bigger than the laptop you get today. It was very slow and cumbersome compared to today's models but at the time it felt fantastic, certainly much faster than doing it by hand. We developed this thing so it was almost completely alternated and when we showed this to Mac he bought into it. We proved that it could work, tests we did between Zambia and London had worked and we sent someone into the country, not with a computer or anything but we recorded stuff on a tape.
POM This was into SA?
TJ Sent the guy into SA to send it back to us to see if it would be readable from London and his job was simply to go to a telephone. We gave him a little speaker like this microphone I'm wearing here and he would just go into a public telephone and press the play there and hold the speaker onto the mouthpiece of the telephone and well first he would listen to the answering machine and the answering machine would say "Please leave a message after the tone", and you put this thing on and you press play and it played the message onto the answering machine and we found it worked perfectly. The message came through that end and we could take those tones from the answering machine, play it back into the modem, the modem back into the computer and then decipher it and it all worked more or less error free.
Well this was a big breakthrough and we showed it to Mac and we showed him the results and he was very happy with it and it worked better than all the commercial things that he could buy. We had proved that the regular communications just didn't work, this could work because he was playing it back through the system at a very high volume whereas the proper computer communications, in other words modem talking to modem, you've got no control over the volume or the speed or anything, it's just built into the system.
POM When the system was fully developed and things were encrypted, you say that they couldn't be unencrypted by another system if they were intercepted, say if messages were intercepted by the SA government or whatever. Could they have had encoders that could have broken the system?
TJ Well we don't know for sure but we feel that there's no evidence giving us suspicion that they could and we certainly well let me explain again, we had different codes, we had a number of different systems and we used these well even that I could rephrase. When we started this operation we had one system and that was based on, I don't know if you know anything about encryption systems but there's one system that is considered unbreakable and it's called a 'one time pad system', which was developed I think in the second world war where your agents or whatever, your people communicating, were given a little pad which just consisted of rows of random numbers and an alphabet and the alphabet under each letter of the alphabet, each number was assigned a number. Like A could be 31 and B could be 94 and C could be 76 or anything, completely random, and each page would be different and the random numbers on each page could be different. You would use these numbers so in other words you'd take your A which could be 65 and then you'd take the first pair of numbers from the sheet and you'd just add the two together using modular arithmetic, I don't know if you know that, which means that if it's more than 10 you throw the one away, so you just keep the 8 + 9 is 17, so you just keep the 7 and you throw the 1 away which makes it very difficult to decipher. The whole system theoretically is unbreakable because you use that one sheet to encipher the message, then you tear that sheet off and you burn it. So those numbers are only going to be used once and they're completely random and provided you never use that page again there is no theoretical way of breaking that code even though it's very simple, you're simply adding numbers together. Because if it's intercepted the enemy, all they get is a string of random numbers and there's no pattern in there whatsoever and there's nothing to work on because it's just random numbers added together and there's no mathematical formula behind it so theoretically it's unbreakable. In any book on encryption you read they say there's only one system that is unbreakable, any mathematical system can be reversed even if it's terribly, terribly complicated. Even the systems they use today are considered unbreakable but in theory they're breakable even though it might take you 25 million years it's still breakable in theory but in practice it's not because there's no computer that can do it. But they will still say the one time system can't be broken because there's no mathematical formula behind it, there are just numbers, they're random numbers added together and this creates more random numbers and provided you never use that thing again, and that's why it's a pad, it's just a sheet of say 100 numbers and you burn it each time and your next message, but we used that same system and I say theoretically unbreakable because in theory it can't but of course if the enemy intercepts your little pad and makes a copy of it then they've got a copy of your pad and then it is breakable but that's another thing like if they've actually got the same code as you then of course they can break but when you distribute your pads, you have two pads, one for that person, one for that person, they're identical. Of course if there's a spy in between who takes a copy of them then you can break the code.
But we applied the same system to computers where instead of having a pad of these numbers we just put all these numbers onto a disk and gave each person the same disk. Then when you enciphered the message you would type your plain text message and if that message was, say, 1000 characters long it would read 1000 characters of random characters from the disk and use those to encipher the message. Then immediately after you had used them it would really wipe those characters off the disk. So it worked in the same way. So in theory our messages were unbreakable but, again, it's the same thing, if someone had taken a copy of those disks in between then they could have been broken but our job was to make sure that nobody intercepted those two disks. I was the one who created the disks and obviously I kept mine here very well hidden and I gave a disk to the other side and they took that into the country, we had messengers who we trusted and took that into the country and of course we don't know what happened in between but we had no reason to believe that anyone intercepted those disks. It's the same with any encryption system in the world if you have keys and then if the enemy knows your key then your system is broken.
POM "1990 was a momentous year for the ANC. It was the year that the illegitimate apartheid regime unbanned the organisation and released its leaders from prison. 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. This was just another trick. Certainly there was no slowing down of activities in relation to Operation Vula until much later in the year, well after negotiations between the ANC and the regime had gotten under way."
So Vula continued after negotiations began?
TJ Right. Yes for some time after, after the ANC was unbanned in February 1990. We carried on right through that year and into the next year sometime I think.
POM This was under the direction of the ANC National Executive or - ?
TJ Well we just carried on, I don't know where decisions were taken at that time but Operation Vula was still in place, all the key people were still there and it just carried on under the same structures. We received our instructions, essentially our contact was Ivan Pillay in London although we had contact with Mac every time he passed through but really Mac wasn't there most of the time, he was either in the country or travelling abroad or in Zambia or somewhere. Ivan Pillay was really our contact person and we were under his instructions so we just carried on. We weren't really aware of what decisions were being taken in the background because they didn't really affect us. Our instruction was simply to carry on and the flow of messages from SA and from Zambia continued, in fact increased until it tailed off.
POM "The flow of arms into SA during the first months of the ANC's unbanning also did not decrease despite the changed political climate."
TJ That's correct.
POM "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 SA. 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 have a strong underground, not one that had no weapons at hand."
Where did this debate come through to you?
TJ Yes it came through at a later stage, I can't remember exactly when. There were these number of Accords between the ANC discussion group, or whatever they were called at that time, this was even before the CODESA discussions, there was a Pretoria Minute and some other Minute, DF Malan, a whole bunch of Minutes and there was a Minute that related to the armed struggle where the ANC called a cease-fire as it were. So I think until that point, I can't remember exactly when that was, I think it was sometime in 1990 and then I suppose all the stuff related to the armed struggle ceased although I can't remember the details now exactly when things stopped. I don't know if it says there. It's all a bit vague to me now because it's a bit like the escape, if you don't write down all these facts and things
POM But you say when Gebhuza was arrested they found the files unencrypted and this was against
TJ Yes, we were a bit disappointed to hear that because a lot of our time we spent drawing up all kinds of security manuals for them. We wrote down every step of the way, exactly how the system worked and when there were changes in the system it was all explained and we explained about the security of this system and it was all written down in manuals that we sent in over the system or one of our couriers took in on disk. Every time we queried them on this they always assured us that, no, all the steps were being followed, all the proper procedures were being followed and security was very tight and they didn't leave any disks lying around and all that stuff, exactly the way we instructed them to do it. But as it turned out, I don't know whether they only became lax right towards the end or whether it was like this all the way through, although it made us feel that maybe they weren't always so secure about the way they worked because I think they should have realised that the dangers then were just as severe as at any other time.
POM It would appear from what you say that most of the files that Gebhuza had anyway were unencrypted.
TJ That seems to have been the case.
POM The government could run the stuff right through.
TJ That's right.
POM Do you know that for sure?
TJ Well it's clear that they did because there was this underground conference of the Communist Party that was held in Tongaat and they found all the stuff of that. How it was meant to work was we had two separate encryption systems. One was for communications, in other words they would encrypt that side and send it to us and we would decipher and vice versa. Then we gave them a simpler system for their own usage, for once they deciphered everything and they'd read it and finished it, the rule was no printouts and if you did print out then you read it and then you either burn it or flush it down the toilet immediately, tear it up very small. But generally the rule was no printouts. If you do need to keep anything then you re-encrypt it with this other programme which was just for your own encryption, it was a much simpler system where there were no communications involved, it was just a matter of taking messages and encrypting it and you had to store everything in encrypted form. But it seems like that was too much bother, people would decipher the stuff and then store it on another disk in plain text. That's the only way you can explain them finding all this stuff. It must have been hell doing it.
POM How would you evaluate in the scheme of things?
TJ I don't know if that was a general trend. It's how the system operated. I don't really know myself. In the beginning there were just the two who were doing it, there was Mac and Gebhuza, just the two of them, they had no assistants. But then as Operation Vula grew a lot of these tasks were handed over to other people so we weren't communicating directly with Mac and Gebhuza, they actually handed all that stuff over to other people who had been brought in. It may have been that they themselves had left the instructions, no plain text stuff to be left around and when you decipher you read it and then you encrypt it again and put it back on a disk if you need to keep it, otherwise you just commit it to memory, but if it's something you need to keep then you keep it in encrypted form. So it may have been these other people who were actually running the communications at that time. I don't know at what stage, I am sure that Mac at least would never have done that. He was very strict about these things. So Gebhuza? I don't know, maybe.
Yes, they always asked for these encryption programmes to encrypt the stuff for storage and if they wanted some modification to the programme then they would request it and we'd build that into the programme. The programme was developing the whole time.
POM Would these requests come through Ivan?
TJ No, those kinds of requests would come through the system itself. They would say, "OK, we're using this programme, can you not improve this aspect of the programme", or after a few months they would say, "OK I think it's time for a new system", because that was also important that we kept changing the way the system worked, the actual encryption, mathematical formula built into it. Then there was all this stuff because they had all the security stuff that we'd sent them and so we felt that things were tight and if they were paying attention to this, if they were actually asking for updates of the programme and concerned about it they must be using it. They wouldn't be asking for that stuff if they weren't. But then, as I say, all the stuff got handed over to other people and there appears to have been a whole team of them working and the system itself was developed for communicating within the country so they had links between Cape Town and Jo'burg and Durban and other places. So a lot of stuff was moving around.
POM In a way the more people who were accessed to the system, the greater the dangers.
TJ And also the way the system worked developed over time because I explained there how the sort of crude technology of public telephones and answering machines was used at the beginning of it but later on as electronic services became available, sort of more or less like the Internet today, there was no real Internet then but there were international electronic networks that you could use and the one was Compuserve and the other one was a thing we used in Britain called Telecom Gold, but you could actually use these systems to communicate with SA using conventional e-mail and so on. It was not quite like the e-mail we use today but it was a commercial system and it was over international networks. That was like a big leap forward because the volumes of stuff you could send were increased greatly and the security of the system was much tighter and you didn't have all this crude technology and telephones and noise and all sorts of things. You could send vast things. I think I explain there how we were sending in publications all laid out with photographs and everything. So all we had to do is print it out there on a printing press.
Of course this technology also inside the country they started to use it, these more advanced systems, so it all became a lot easier and then people became more relaxed after the unbanning of the organisation. It was clear that the precautions that were built into it fell away to an extent and probably a lot of the manuals that we'd sent to Mac and Gebhuza when the team was small were just not passed on and they didn't have time to train people or didn't really know how to train people. They just said, this is your task, do it. Don't do this, maybe don't do that, but not giving them any proper training or real understanding of the dangers of the security. Possibly there was a turnover of these kind of people as well. Maybe one would do it for a few months and then for whatever reason there would maybe be another person doing it and then there were more people involved and we kept swapping around and it became just a bigger thing. I suppose the security just fell apart.
POM Two people have said to me, one is a man named Christo Davidson who was the Inspector at Newcastle who interrogated Gebhuza, said that once they got hold of the documentation and the open files and files that had been encrypted, their decoders were able to break, at that point were able to break the encrypted files. Is that possible?
TJ Well that's not breaking them. They were just able to use the system. They had everything. They had the computers, they had the programme and they had the keys. They had everything they needed so that you could just decipher everything. So it wasn't breaking
POM To unencrypt what had not been unencrypted?
TJ Yes, even if it was encrypted if they have the keys, they have everything, they can just decipher it. It's not breaking, it's just deciphering the way it's meant to be deciphered. You've got the equipment, you've got the programme, you've got the keys and it's easy. It's not as if they're breaking it which is a different thing. When you break it it means you don't have the key and you don't have the programme, all you have is the intercepted encrypted message and that's what you've got to work with.
POM So when they make that claim it's not an unbelievable claim?
TJ If they call it breaking it's not breaking, it's just deciphering which is quite a different thing. They had everything. They got the computers, they got everything. At what moment we realised that they'd got it we changed the entire system, we completely reintroduced the system as it were with new technology and new programmes and everything and we carried on as before. We knew that they'd got the stuff, that was our report that they'd found the computers, they had the programmes and everything.
POM Even after that you used a new encryption system?
TJ Yes we used a new system and we just carried on and there's no reason, there's no indication that they intercepted because it went on for a long time after that and a lot of hairy stuff went through there and they have no indication of that. I mean we don't know for 100% sure. They could have like the British did, they were reading all the German communications, they don't let on, they actually let you do things. Even when they could decipher the German stuff and they knew they were going to come and drop a bomb there, they didn't warn those people because it was more value to them that the Germans didn't know that they broke it because if they moved everyone away from there the Germans would know that they only way they could have known about it was if they were reading their messages.
So they could have been operating like that but I don't believe it because right through we were still using this one time system which was for the most important as I said at the end we had a whole range of different encryption systems, sort of levels of encryption. So for a lower level message you'd use a very quick system which still was very secure and it was even double encrypted because the way it worked was that you first took your message and you compressed it with a compression programme using encryption so it was compressed and encrypted, even compressing is a form of encryption because once it's compressed you can't read it. Then that was encrypted and then that encrypted message was re-encrypted. So it was always like double encrypted even on the lowest level and then we had higher, higher, higher levels and the way each level worked was that it was always encrypted by the lower level first and then up to the higher level, so the highest level was like the yolk in the middle which was absolutely unbreakable because it was still a one time system. That was like key information, like a meeting or smuggling of arms or something which would then be wrapped around another level which was a less powerful encryption and then the encryption of the compression was like a third level on the outside, a shell. It was sometimes three or four times encrypted right through and the core level was the unbreakable one time system.
POM What do you think Vula contributed to the overall?
TJ That's very difficult to say. To actually see its results you would have had to be on the ground there I think. I think it really opened up things, I think it made it clear that the only way the struggle was going to take off was by getting the leadership figures back into the country and in the very short time that they were there things really opened up. I think I spelt it out there that the communications were absolutely key and I give Mac credit for that. His core observation was that this operation won't work unless we have very good communications and they actually kept delaying the start of this project until he knew that the communications were secure and could be operated by them inside the country and that it would work and we proved that before they actually went in but it did actually delay the start of it.
It made such an enormous difference, once they were in there for the first time we actually had now key leadership inside the country and that made an enormous difference because here you had people seeing what was going on, being able to communicate with the leadership in Lusaka in almost real time, being able to pass political comment back to the leadership, being able to receive instructions from the leadership and it really opened up things. As I said also at the practical level it just made it so much easier to get money into the country, get documents into the country, get arms into the country, get people into the country, all these kinds of things were holding back the armed struggle. On a Friday you could say, right, on Sunday we want to meet someone in Gaborone or somewhere with X amount of weapons or whatever. You could set up these meetings at very short notice and set all your key words and all your passwords and all this sort of stuff. You could describe how to meet and where to meet and what the passwords, blah, blah, and it just made life so much easier.
POM Did you ever envisage your life taking the course it took?
TJ No I don't think so. It was very exciting towards the end because it was like a bomb almost this thing, Vula, it just developed so fast. All that stuff that had been going on for years and hadn't really taken off. If you drew a graph of it it was just slowly upwards like this, there was no explosion like there was with Vula. In a way we were almost disappointed when it came to an end because it was like an anti-climax because we were continuously working on this technology and some of the stuff we had was almost space age. By the time when it collapsed we had all sorts of incredible stuff for internal communications using e-mail and radio and all sorts of things and the technology was really moving ahead very fast and getting smaller and smaller and smaller, fantastic little pocket computers and things that could do the same job and all kinds of incredible systems. It was just so exciting seeing all this stuff happening and getting messages from Mandela in the prison and just allowing everybody to talk to each other internally and externally and there was just so much going on there. It just opened up each channel.
POM Looking at the history of the ANC in one book, I think Patti Waldmeir's book, I don't have the extract from it but she said that Vula existed more in Mac's mind than in reality.
TJ Well how would she know? What would she be working on unless the only person she interviewed was Mac. She certainly never interviewed me or anybody else on the thing and maybe she just read a few newspaper clippings. I don't know how she bases that statement. I would say it's an absolute untruth. It certainly woke up a lot of people.
POM Where would you place it by this I mean you had a conflict going on, you had one side that was enormously derelict in terms of its communication system and therefore, you used the phrase, it had a rudderless army, and that what you created was the means to give that army Generals and for every actor on that side to communicate with each other which is a necessary ingredient for success in any conflict. In the absence of negotiations taking place do you think that Vula would have developed a momentum and life of its own, that it would have in fact allowed more members of the NEC and others to go back into SA or to be internally driven rather than externally driven?
TJ No, I'm convinced that's the truth, it would have, I think it would have. I mean right until the end it was a very closed secret and we hear things about people who were excluded from this information being unhappy about being excluded, including our current President. I mean I don't know, it was just stuff you hear. And also I was never really part of any other operations as such, going back into SA I can only look at the external evidence that I see. I look at all the armed actions and so on and I don't see any sort of coherent patterns here. I don't see anything that tells me that there was any major long term, well thought out operation behind these actions. They were all very sporadic, here and there, and all seemed totally unrelated one to the other and there was no pattern that I can pick out and say those were the result of a certain thrust or a certain operation or anything like that, whereas Vula, although on the surface there is not much to see on the surface, there's not I can't say any of the armed actions were the result of any weapons smuggled in through Vula or anything like that but there was a lot of stuff happening at that time and something must have happened with those weapons. We had no reports ever that the stuff had been discovered although we know a lot of it was simply smuggled into the country and not used but that was just because it happened at that time. On the surface there's not an awful lot to show but I've read all the communications of what was going on and it was certainly not stuff going on in Mac's head, there were all kinds of things going on which there were reports about and there were vast sums of money going in and all kinds of documentation going in and the fact that we were able to communicate with Mandela inside prison, that was no small thing to actually get this stuff, some kind of dialogue going and this was the time when Mandela was talking to the regime and they thought they were talking to this one lone man but in fact he was getting instructions coming back to him so there was feedback from the organisation, he wasn't speaking for himself.
There is just so much stuff there, it's not stuff in Mac's mind, it's real things going on, so many meetings and so many of these people and so many printing presses set up and all this kind of stuff. I think Vula's problem was that it was cut short. It was building up this thing, it wasn't going back there and struggling immediately. Mac's task was to build up the structures and we got it to a point where probably it was about to really explode. Other people were being told about it and other people were being brought in and trained, people who didn't know about it in the beginning. There were people like Ronnie Kasrils and a few others on the side who were lining up to go back but never did. Yes, I am sure if it had gone on for any time it would have been the door and Mac would have set up the structures, not just Mac on his own but he would have been the core. As I say that was Vula's problem, it had reached a peak and then there was no more function.
POM My final question is does anyone have a set of the Vula papers?
TJ I have the Vula papers, most of them. I did a print out up to a certain point, I think which was about 1989 sometimes, so that was about two years of it, and we also stored a lot of the stuff in encrypted form, all the messages. We applied the same rules to ourselves outside. Somehow I've lost the keys and I've lost the programmes, I've lost everything through moving from country to country and all that so a lot of it I can't decipher any more. So a lot of the key stuff is lost in a way, I can't decipher it myself. But there is a printout but you know even if I gave that to you it wouldn't mean a damn thing to you because a lot of it's contextual, it's like double talk. We had a kind of overt code that we used, we used key words, we used to have these sheets of key words for places and for names and for things and for actions.
POM If I took that to Mac would he be able to - ?
TJ He might, he claims he could but I read the stuff and a lot of it's just gobbledegook to me. I don't know if we have a record of all those key words. Maybe it will come back to him, maybe some of them will, some of them won't, but it's all very contextual. You have to look at the dates and the time and you have to know where you were at that moment to know what it means.
POM If I ask Mac to call you?
TJ He has called me, he has asked for this stuff. There are other logistical problems in that it's hundreds and hundreds of pages and it means standing in front of a photocopier for hours which I don't really have time to do. In fact I don't really have a good photocopier so it means outsourcing it somewhere. I don't really want to let them out of my hands and probably a very costly exercise to do it. But we must do it. Mac is trying to think of a plan.
POM Maybe if I got Mac to come down and have a look at what you have and see if he can put it in context?
TJ Another thing we could do is I started writing a book about Vula when I came back to this country and I actually wrote quite a lot. I was just purging my mind of this stuff so it's very, very padded out. It's my way of writing, I just write and then later on I edit it back a lot. I wrote something like 300 pages but those 300 pages only takes us through the first year so a lot of it's not there but there's a lot of detail, the same sort of stuff as this article but going into much more detail. I can try and resuscitate that although I'm not sure exactly where it is but I must have it somewhere. Perhaps he could have a look at that, there's a lot of detail there.
POM That would be good.
TJ Even little bits out of key messages like crucial messages, just sort of cut and paste them into the text and then trying to put an interpretation onto it.
POM I'll have Mac talk to you and he could come down or when he's here and maybe have a look at what you have, or remember or contextualise it so I know what it means or whatever, because in terms of the cost of copying I have a grant from the Mott Foundation that will cover such things. The other person I've gone to is Christo Davidson who I interviewed -
TJ I wonder how valuable that would be anyway because what you say to the police and what you say to someone like yourself is different I suppose.
POM I'd appreciate your having a look if you wish to. If you don't that's fine, just say so.
TJ Well Mac has asked for the stuff and I would like it to come out. like to get it Mac has always talked about writing a book about the whole thing. He's not really the guy to do that because, I know you're doing something, but I think he would like to write down the record some way or another but he's not really a writer and I don't think he has the time to do it anyway.
POM That's supposed to be my contribution. His family had a discussion about it. I've been interviewing him since 1990.
POM Let's keep in touch about it. I'll talk to him. I appreciate your spending so much time.