About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

12 Dec 2002: Maharaj, Mac

BBC RADIO 4 DOCUMENTARY ON OPERATION VULA

INTERVIEW BY NIGEL WRENCH AND DAVID PRICE

NW     Mr Maharaj, identify yourself if you will.

MM     Mac Maharaj.

NW     Tell us your position here at First National Bank.

MM     Oh I'm a non-executive director in First Rand Holding and First Rand Bank.

NW     Tell us, let me take you back to the late eighties, Operation Vula. Why was it necessary? What was it? Introduce us to it, why was it necessary to set it up?

MM     Operation Vula was decided upon by the National Executive of the ANC in 1986. The immediate pressure driving us to set up such a mission in the ANC from Zambia was that we had gone through the early eighties, we had been sending in cadres into the country to continue with the struggle both at the military and political level but we found that we were not lifting the level to a higher plane.  There was mass resistance within the country and by the mid-eighties the Vaal Triangle was in permanent revolt. We felt that it was necessary to send senior leaders of the ANC who had the credibility and could interact with the Mass Democratic Movement in a way where we could synchronise our activities, drive towards a common strategy, build the underground, build our military capacity. And so Operation Vula was decided upon as a highly secret operation which would pave the way for senior leadership at the National Executive level to come and settle down semi-permanently into the country.

NW     That had never happened in the history of the ANC. It was still illegal at this time. It would be very dangerous, it would mean establishing an underground for you and other senior leaders.

MM     Well the National Executive in taking that decision had debated the matter for over three to four meetings and always the dangers that were inherent in such a mission, both for the individuals involved as well as setbacks for the movement, were assessed. So the decision was that we entrusted that project to the President, assisted by Joe Slovo, on the understanding that they would not even divulge the identities of who were sent home to the National Executive. They would divulge political content of the reports but they would not say who has gone home.

NW     How important was it to the ANC?

MM     I think it was regarded as a strategic and crucial development. It was not possible, in our view, to escalate this struggle beyond the levels that it had entered. Every other struggle that had been waged from exile or from the underground and had moved towards armed struggle had been accompanied by senior leaders going in. But not even the armed struggle, ordinary struggles, ordinary orthodox forms of struggle under repression and dictatorship had had senior leadership surviving within a country where the struggle was being waged.

NW     You took some inspiration from the Vietnam war?

MM     Vietnam was a crucial example because Ho Chi Minh was operating from within. General Giap was operating within Vietnam. Agreed, they retreated from time to time to safe havens. But if you take, for example, the struggle against Franco, the struggle against Salazar in Portugal waged by the left, the Communist Party, the General Secretary of the Communist Party was operating in Portugal.

NW     You and other senior officials had to be inside the country. That was the decision. When that had been decided what happened next?

MM     Well after the NEC decision Tambo and Slovo came to my home in Zambia and asked me to draw up, draft a strategic perspective for that type of mission. It was drafted, it was discussed and finalised and they said to me they have selected me to be the first one to go into the country.

NW     Why do you think?

MM     I assumed that because I had been Secretary of the ANC underground from December 1977 to 1986 they felt that I was one of the suitable candidates to send home because I knew the people in the Mass Democratic Movement, I came with a background of involvement from the beginning of the armed struggle and even in the fifties and I had served in prison and I had come out, become Secretary of the underground, and I think it was for that reason that they selected me.

NW     What did you think though? You've served all this time in prison, you knew at first hand the risk. Was there any doubt in your mind about accepting this mission? It was very risky, it was very dangerous. You weren't even sure of the result.

MM     No I had no doubts. I only asked for one condition and that not as a condition, I simply asked the President whether I was allowed to discuss and divulge to my wife that I would be heading for home and he in a very understanding way said that he saw no problem and he thought it was a necessary step. So I discussed it with my wife and both of us agreed that this was not a matter for individual choice, it was a necessity required by the struggle, and our commitment to the struggle meant that we  must be prepared to do what the struggle required of us.

NW     That might have meant that you'd have been killed?

MM     Yes it was a difficult question to face up to but who was I who had spent years now in exile sending other cadres in to risk their lives, who was I to say that when it comes to me because of my position that I should be privileged and excluded from facing that risk and responsibility?

NW     It might mean you'd kill people.

MM     Yes it might mean that too but it might also mean that I would be dead. But that was the logic of the struggle, that repression and autocratic rule had reached a stage where even the world acknowledged that something had to happen and nothing was happening to change the situation and system in the country. People were serving life imprisonment, people had been executed, people had been shot and part of the regime had lost their lives too through our cadres.

NW     There was a state of emergency. There were those who thought the apartheid state, the security forces had never been stronger.

MM     Yes I think that that is no doubt true. There were signs that the state was continuing on its repressive path, was all powerful, but there were mass struggles taking place. The Soweto uprisings had spread now and they were spreading throughout the country. The Vaal Triangle was up in flames. Port Elizabeth was in revolt. Uitenhage was in revolt. Mass demonstrations were taking place in all parts of the country so you had the struggle being escalated to a higher level, the masses no longer prepared to be cowed by the power of the state and we needed to be on the ground to provide leadership so that this energy of the masses was focused on overthrowing the regime.

NW     If that was the focus did it mean that individual lives perhaps mattered less?

MM     No I think that in every freedom struggle lives are lost on both sides and one of the unfortunate things and the challenge of the 21st century is that the 20th century was a century of democracy. It has now become accepted that democratic rule should be the norm all over the world. But the 20th century failed to find the answer of how to resolve conflicts without going to war and that's a challenge for the 21st century.

NW     As you prepared for Operation Vula was it as if you were preparing for war?

MM     No, I was preparing as part of the processes of escalating the struggle to a people's war and one of the conditions that we saw as necessary is to have rapid lines of communications, rapid facilities for logistical movement of material and people who were trained and to locate a leadership corps which would merge with the leadership that had emerged on the ground.

NW     The decision is made. You decide you're going to take up this challenge. What happens next? How did you begin to set up the process of going back in? Communication was key, you couldn't just go back in and not be able to talk to the ANC leadership in Lusaka.

MM     We agreed as soon as the very brief strategic paper had been prepared and agreed upon by President Tambo, Slovo and myself, I said that I saw two obstacles. One was the existing lines of communication with our underground in the country. For that I said I would like to develop – my wife was a systems analyst and had worked for Xerox – I said with her assistance and the assistance of other comrades I felt we could develop a system of communication which would be rapid, reasonably safe, but I needed resources for that. Secondly, I said in the strategic paper, that whatever was existing at the clandestine level should continue. We should not put all our eggs in one basket. Vula was not going into the country with a view of becoming militarily immediately operational. So let the other structures carry on. As we settle down and secure our existence in the country then Lusaka can link us up with other of our forces on the ground. Thirdly, let it develop in separate pockets, send other members of the NEC to other regions of the country without knowledge of each other. Let them settle down and the linking inside the country would be determined by Lusaka when it thought they were operating in a secure way.

NW     So this was the theory, there had to be a line of communication. There was a gap there, isn't there, because the trouble over the years was that there hadn't been that communication.

MM     There had been communications but very defective. The classic example of what was happening was that you relied on couriers, written, even if it was encrypted notes and the Zimbabwean struggle had shown that counter-insurgency in Zimbabwe mastered the technique of rapidly capturing the persons sent in, turning the person around quickly and sending the person back to bait the incoming forces into ambushes.

NW     That person would become a double agent?

MM     A double agent. And so it became a classical technique. It was happening to us and we were intercepting the enemy and trying to turn them around. They were intercepting our people. They were sending in provocateurs and all that was very slow moving communications. The country's politics were developing so rapidly that you needed to be on the ground and in dynamic contact with head office.

NW     Those kinds of communications, what would they use? Book codes, it was secret agent stuff wasn't it?

MM     We used book codes too but we computerised this so that the encryption and decryption was done mechanically and rapidly.

NW     I want to come to that but I just want to refer, just for a second, to what you've been talking about, the old systems. Those old systems, secret agent stuff if you will, those messages could take weeks to get out.

MM     Take weeks and it would take hours to encrypt, errors could creep in and to decrypt it it took hours of painstaking work, turning page after page of the book, counting the lines and counting the position of the letter. Yes, the practice of it that was you used a one time pad and the moment you had used it for encryption you destroyed it and the other side used the companion page to decrypt and destroyed it so that it could not be recovered. That theoretically was sound but the application was too slow.

NW     It took much too long.

MM     Much too long.

NW     So let's move on. The solution was then what?

MM     The solution was that computers were just coming in and we were fearful, it was desktop computers but the first of the laptops had come through. Toshiba had manufactured a laptop with a liquid crystal screen which avoided the problems of detection and reading from the street using mobile intercepting machinery, you could read a desktop but the liquid crystal gave you that assurance. Secondly, the memory of a liquid crystal laptop was small so you could not store the information there, you were forced to store it on disks and with a team headed in London by Tim Jenkin assisted by Ronnie Press and then, unknown to them, with my wife in Zambia working at this problem we came up with an encryption system which was only resolved after I had entered the country.

     But we had resolved the problem, we were on the verge of resolving how to transmit and we were using the ordinary public telephone lines for communication. The days of the cell phones were not there, the days of the portable phones – we bought one in the underground in the country. It was a huge suitcase, bigger than the normal briefcase, very heavy, needed an aerial to be set up but it was better than radio communications which needed a mast to be set up - which was used in Broederstroom by Ronnie Kasrils' group and which required the aerial to be laid out over a very substantial piece of ground. Even then it had to be received in Zambia with powerful receiving equipment and then still the encryption/decryption was based on the one time pad and menu.

NW     So here we have the ANC, what? The oldest liberation movement in the world at this point, using the newest of technologies.

MM     No, we manufactured that ourselves. We had gone so far that the first computer on which we started experimenting in Zambia as far back as 1986 was smuggled in from Mexico outside of the funds of the ANC. Then the second, the funding of this was not funded by ANC treasury. OR Tambo felt that if we went to treasury then the question would arise – why such a substantial amount, for what? So we went and raised it from a private donor in the UK who gave us our money and started us off with R100,000 which was used specifically, at that time it was £50,000, but specifically devoted to developing the communication system.

NW     Who was that donor?

MM     I think in fairness to the donor, highly respectable in British society, without his permission I would be reluctant to divulge it.

NW     There are still secrets, aren't there, about Operation Vula?

MM     There are not secrets. I think we're now in a stable democracy. I think people should be known for what they did for the struggle but I think we need to take into account sensitivities of individuals. And I think some of the individuals who want to be faceless are wonderful persons. I think they are so giving of themselves that they don't want any credit for it.

NW     From your point of view, let's just move, I want to talk about, in a moment, how you got into the country, but if we can move – jumping I know – to the point where this technology arrives. Tell me how it worked from your point of view. How did you work it? Give us an account of it. What would you do?

MM     Well as the system – when it began to operate in a stable way, and as I said when I entered the country that system was not yet operational, they had to smuggle in the laptop delivery here. They had to smuggle in the programmes on disks but as it worked is that we would use the laptop to write the message, use the encryption disk based on a one-time pad principle to encrypt, and then we would transmit that onto a tape recorder.

NW     It would be a series of bleeps on the tape recorder?

MM     Yes, a series of sounds, binary. Now it's on tape, the tape recorder had an acoustic coupler which could link it to a telephone.

NW     Like a modem of some sort?

MM     With a modem and then an acoustic coupler which would clamp on the mouthpiece of the telephone handle. You'd go to a public phone, you'd dial a number, it was a London, a UK number at the beginning, and as soon as that number connected you'd put on the acoustic coupler to the part where you spoke into the phone to seal off extraneous sounds, and then you'd switch on the tape recorder and within a minute you would have in that burst sent the equivalent of four pages of A4 typed communications.

NW     These sounds, these bleeps, would go down the phone, be decoded the other side.

MM     Tim Jenkin and his team would pick it up at a phone, tape record it coming through. They'd take that tape-recorded information, hook it up to the laptop, feed it into the laptop, put in the decryption programme, align the programme and decrypt the message and then automatically it wiped out that decryption part of the programme. So it was a one-time pad destroyed.

NW     That would then go on to Lusaka?

MM     From there they would re-encrypt it and send it to Lusaka and the reason was we did not want a direct telephone connection to Zambia. We could have done it but London was used as a place with very secure, safe telephone lines operating, efficient, pick it up in the UK or pick it up in Holland, get it to London and then transmit from London so that anybody intercepting communications would find no direct air traffic going on between South Africa and Zambia.

NW     What did you think the first time you used it? Talk me through it. Did you walk up to an ordinary pay phone with this briefcase full of equipment? What was the scene?

MM     The first time was hilarious because your instinct tells you you want the remotest site and you want one where nobody is around. So I went up to the Natal University Howard College campus public phone at about twelve at night and that's the worst thing to do because nobody is around and the security guards who are on patrol see you as doing something funny. But I succeeded, and we didn't entrust this, Siphiwe Nyanda and myself, we didn't entrust this to any of the people, other operatives. We didn't want them to know how we were communicating. It was known just to him and I. He was the guard, I did the collection and we took it to a hideout, fed it into the computer and there were huge problems because these pay phones needed coins and every time you fed the coin in that caused an interruption and an interference and a corruption of the data.

NW     You must have thought it's not going to work.

MM     No, no, I was confident it was going to work. But then came the pay phone card, but by that time I was renting hotel rooms under false names, walking into the hotel room and using their lines, but of course afraid that there's a clue who was the occupant. So we arranged to buy a portable phone but I found that the best place was – and Tim in the meantime resolved the coin dropping problem, he found a way to get past that error burst and we began to transmit from the beachfront in Durban at the busiest hour, eight, nine o'clock at night, open pay booths, no doors, a bank of telephones and you didn't even need a guard.

NW     Everybody could see you. The police were probably going past.

MM     Everybody could see you and all you had to do was when you're picking up, put the earphone on, just have it shielded by your back. But the more you did it in the open the less your conduct appeared suspicious. There was an instance when I had a big laugh because Siphiwe went to collect it and suddenly there's an interruption as I'm collecting the message and a voice comes over the tape and it's Siphiwe's voice saying to somebody, "Get away, get away!" And apparently it was because in the queue of people wanting to use the phone a woman happened to lean over to hurry him but he thought that because he was doing something clandestine, thought she was looking at what he was doing. So he was getting ready to get into a fight, and I say, "Here you are, you've messed another communication. We've got to pick it up again. Go back to that same booth and collect it again."

NW     Do you remember what the content of that first message was? What was in it? Did you say, this is to celebrate the first message, or was it businesslike, down to business straightaway?

MM     No we went straight to business and then we did end up the message congratulating London for having resolved the problems and London came back congratulating us and I recall that the first encrypted one now said, "At last I'm past the risk of putting my voice on that phone." And I said, "Thanks guys, you've saved my life."

NW     What was in the message? Were you saying this is what you were doing or were you asking for things?

MM     Many of the communications dealt with various components. One would be refining the communication system and upgrading it and getting over other codes. There's another component of couriers coming into the country because financial support had to come in by couriers in SA rands. Third was arranging for arms and ammunition and equipment to come into the country and rendezvous points. So those were the technical, logistical ones. Then there were reports of human resources that we needed, people trained outside, or people being sent out for higher grade training and arrangements to receive them. Then there were the straight political reports of what was happening organisationally, what we were doing propaganda-wise clandestinely, what we were doing in interacting with the Mass Democratic Movement. So there was the political report, the organisational report and the logistical side of supporting this initiative.

NW     Make no mistake, you refer to the arms, this was very serious.

MM     Yes I think we also were extremely innovative. Until then we brought in arms by vehicles being adapted with concealed compartments. That work was done outside, in Swaziland, in Mozambique, in Zimbabwe and Botswana and Zambia, and then the vehicle would be loaded with arms and brought across the border and delivered within the country. Now that's a foreign vehicle. What we did was we looked at the system from inside out and we found that we could get vehicles within the country, prepare the compartments in them and substantial compartments rather than the small ones, and send a vehicle out with ordinary people in SA going to visit Botswana, who often didn't know what they were doing, but they would simply have to, as part of it, while having a weekend in Botswana, take the vehicle, park it at a spot and aligned with that vehicle Botswana already had the ready-prepared tank to suit that vehicle with the arms in it, so they just switched tanks and within two hours the turnaround was done.

NW     This would be what? Trucks or vans or something?

MM     It could be cars. One of the classical cars that suited us and allowed us to do very a fast turnaround was the Toyota Cressida 2.6 and the reason was that its petrol tank could be removed very easily and you had two petrol tanks and you simply slipped in the packed one and any petrol gauge, it was so adapted, would show that it is a full tank and yet a whole portion of that entire tank was adapted into a compartment.

NW     I suppose the beauty of it, a Toyota Cressida, it's a very common car in South Africa.

MM     Very common car, even a black person driving it across the border – as long as his documentation showed that owning that second-hand Cressida was not out of sync with his position in society, passed without suspicion.

NW     So what would be - ?

MM     And the advantage was we could go in and hire a Toyota Cressida. As long as it was the right one from the hiring agents we just had to slip the tank. So you wouldn't see the same car crossing the border over and over.

NW     In these cars what would be there? What sort of arms would be hidden in these cars as they drove back?

MM     From AK47s to Scorpion urban warfare automatic sub-machine guns to pistols, to dynamite to landmines to anti-personnel mines, the lot.

NW     You were conducting a war?

MM     We were preparing to escalate the war that was already taking place in the country. We were preparing to escalate it so that it would become a truly all round people's war.

NW     You wanted to distribute these arms right around the country?

MM     No, we were training people that we were recruiting in the country. From those people we would sift out those who we thought were performing well and had the potential to go out to do an officer's course so that we did not have to send a large number of people out but we would train them on the ground in rudimentary forms of sabotage, judge their mettle, judge their leadership qualities and officer capability and then say go out now for that type of training. In the meantime we were carrying out rudimentary forms of sabotage such as blowing up a railway line, not because that was our activity but in the training of the people we needed practical experience to be given to them.

NW     You were blowing up railway lines as practice?

MM     Why not? I mean we were not in the privileged position of being a state in power where people go and blow up things in a specially set-aside site, and they do destroy, they destroy even old tanks to test and keep their capability on it.

NW     There were lots of bombs on railway lines, I remember, reported back in that time. These were all practice?

MM     These were practice but non-practice was – we adapted it, we were doing the leaflet bombing and that was also a practical exercise because the essential first stage of the training was to get people who had the commitment to the struggle to work as a team, operate under the tension of doing something clandestine and risky, learn to understand the potential that sits with an explosive and not become reckless. So even to distribute leaflets by a pamphlet bomb in a public venue was part of the training and yet doing practical work.

NW     If these were the practice operations, blowing up a railway line, leaflet bombs with, I'm imagining, ANC leaflets which were strictly banned at that point, what was the serious target? Was there one first one? Was there one big one?

MM     We hadn't gone to serious targets. As I said, our job was to recruit, train and sift out of the trainees those who would go for officer training. In the meantime these very people that we had recruited would stay in political formation in the underground. Some of them would be working in the mass organisations, community organisations, even the UDF, even the trade unions.

NW     United Democratic Front, the UDF.

MM     United Democratic Front and the trade union federation, COSATU, so that they were living integrated lives. They were not on the surface of it living clandestinely. They were within the country legitimately, they'd never gone out, so they could operate with a greater sense of security. They were doing illegal work. We were building up a bank of information of targets being reconnoitred, reconnoitring information, checked out. We had started integrating with the existing intelligence structures we had in the underground and lifting their capability higher. It is also known that by the time they arrested us they found information that indicated that we had penetrated the security branch of the state.

NW     There were moles were there? What? In the army, security forces?

MM     We called them moles in the security police, in various areas, in the arms industry. These were intelligence agents collecting information but in particular with the security branch there was long term information on how far they were tracking and what knowledge they had of the different formations in the country and individuals. But there was also the immediate operational lead to security for our operation.

     For example, they found a house, a garage attached to a house, where there were printing machines, materials for printing clearly identified as ANC and SACP, and they found explosives. They then went and occupied that garage waiting for the people using it to come in. They arrested the occupants of the front house, who were the landlords. We got information that they had found this place and they had stationed officers in there waiting for us to come in. We set up communications with the house owner in detention preparing a legend: is he holding firm to the legend as to who is the tenant of this garage? Secondly, we had to decide – do we now ambush these officers because one of the officers had the rank of a Captain sitting in that garage? Do we ambush them and kill them? There were three of them. But we decided, after much debate, that would be a short term advantage. It would provoke an investigation on their side – how come we were knowledgeable about what they were doing? We decided to stay away, nobody appeared, they confiscated the machine and the equipment after staying in that place for a month and finding nobody turning up but they never came to know that we knew that they were occupying it. Now that was operational information enabling you to take a decision how you secured the mission and the short term, the danger of ambushing them and killing them was that you would endanger your mission.

NW     You mentioned targets. What was on that list?

MM     Well we'd done a lot of reconnaissance and I was a bit surprised by my experience here of being in the country rather than sending people from outside. As to targets, right down to the artillery battalion in Johannesburg near Bruma Lake. I was surprised to find how unsecured it was. So from military targets to sabotage targets, to bridges, railway bridges and road bridges, to the movement of our trains. We were monitoring the electricity supply to seeing how electricity was generated at certain power stations, where did the coal come from, where did the water come from, what would be the impact if you hit that water line? Would it bring that power station generator to a stop? How much damage would you create?

     But, as I said, the other side of it was that I was surprised at what you needed in order to secure your legend to survive in the country. We had hitherto been sending in people with forged ID documents. I found it was unnecessary. Nobody asked you for an ID document and an ID document did not take you into an area where there was a state of emergency and road blocks.  What I found was a simply on the ground, forged paper of a summons issued by the prosecutor's office to some person with a name hand written with a rubber stamp of the Magistrate's office requiring you to report as a state witness in a case. And if you showed that and you were travelling by bus and you showed that to the roadblock – no photograph appeared on it but they let you through. Whereas if you showed an ID document they still said, "Why are you going there? What business do you have there?" Yet this one pager, cyclo-styled, which said Mr Sipho Gumede is required to be at Camperdown Magistrate's Court on a certain date at nine o'clock to give evidence in the case of The State versus Tshabalala, the policeman let you through and we could forge that right here.

NW     Which of these targets did you attack?

MM     We did not engage in any attack on a serious target except in the course of training.

NW     Did it matter in selecting the targets whether people would be killed or not?

MM     At that stage of our work yes it mattered. We had to try and avoid the loss of life because the sabotage operations were largely training operations and if you just allowed a life to be lost you knew that the investigation that would be launched would be far more intensive than just the authorities finding that you used 200 gm of dynamite to blow up a railway line.

NW     It wasn't a moral issue?

MM     No I don't think it was a moral issue at all. It was accepted that if there was life lost of people who were in the enemy forces that was not a grey area, that was a clear area. What was a grey area was the civilians caught in crossfire.

NW     You call it a grey area but it's ordinary people's lives.

MM     It's a grey area because of the Geneva Protocol. The Geneva Protocol allowed that in legitimate crossfire an innocent bystander may lose a life but if you went deliberately for a civilian target that was a clear contravention of the Geneva Protocol.

NW     Did it worry you personally that people might be killed?

MM     Yes. Every time one worried first and foremost about civilians. Secondly, one worried about, in each of those exercises, the survival of your own forces and one worried about whether your training exercise, if found out, would bring in harsher repression in the area and how would you continue against that repression which you knew would be wilful and en masse. I even had to grapple with the problem where an activist, who was not involved in Vula and not in the underground but was in the Mass Democratic Movement, got arrested because the enemy thought he was one of the underground people. I know the intelligence officer came to me and said, "This is a friend of mine. We've got to get him out." And I said, "How do we get him out? Do you want us to go and raid the police station and snap him out, because then he has got to live an underground life or get out of the country. Do you want me to bring the real person who is living in this servant's quarters who is an underground activist to be revealed?" And he said, "What are you saying?" I said, "I know he may be facing torture but he really has no information. That's the risk we run but we have to leave him in detention."

NW     All of this time you were using the communication system that you'd set up. What would you say? Would you say to Lusaka, we need two more rocket launches and a dozen AK47s?

MM     Yes we would send our list and sometimes they would meet our list and sometimes they would say, "We are out of supplies", because they too had to get it out of our armouries without divulging that it was coming to Operation Vula. So it was Slovo and Tambo's job to interact with the head of Ordinance in MK.

NW     uMkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

MM     MK to release those weaponry from the armoury without recording where it has gone.

NW     The communication was key to all of this work.

MM     Absolutely key to all of this. You could not send – I remember we were sending a car from Durban, that particular car had the doctored compartment and it rolled over just outside one of the toll plazas. Now (a) the question was the driver and passenger, are they injured, (b) inform via London the people in Botswana, don't expect anybody, so that if anybody appeared there – let's say somebody accidentally, a 1000 in one chance, drove over to that house in a Toyota Cressida, that was the only clue they had, they would have taken it and just switched over the tanks but in the meantime the person was an innocent visitor. So you had to inform them and you had to report whether repercussions of what has happened – have the police found it when they looked at the wreckage of this car. So we had to rescue the wrecked car. You could not do that without communications.

NW     The risk was the Toyota Cressida is a very common car. Someone could drive up to your point and without knowing it end up with –

MM     With a tank with arms in it. That was the risk. But you had to communicate and say this thing is off, and you had to say, here is the person coming, this person is equipped with the following password, if you wanted a face to face contact, or you would be saying I'm sending the person, they would say this is the address where he parks the car. He leaves the keys under the front door mat and he must get away by this hour to give the other side a chance without meeting him face to face to come and collect the car and deliver it at the appropriate time.

NW     Where did you keep all these arms? You've listed them for us. Where did you keep them all?

MM     We created what is generally in the jargon called DLBs, dead letter boxes, and in the same way we created caches where we would store them but we stored them also temporarily in houses. If you interviewed Siphiwe Nyanda, there was an incident which was nerve-wracking because the house where he and I stayed at that stage in Durban we had received a consignment of arms, I was in Johannesburg, Siphiwe got this material, took the tanks into the back yard, emptied them that night in one of the rooms of the house, laid down all the weapons in a nice order to start now checking whether they are functional and then to put grease on them so that they can be stored safely and not rust, but he had left it lying on the floor, the entire floor was apparently strewn with weaponry. And there in the early hours of the morning there's a knock at the door and he shouts from his bed, "Go away." He thinks it's the kids in the street. Persistent knock, he is furious, he hasn't got his disguise, he's in his short pants, no shirt and he gets over to the door ready to swear at these kids to get away and leave him to sleep, opens it and there's a bevy off policemen.

NW     And in a room of the house there's AK47s all over the floor.

MM     Yes. Had he peeped through the side window and seen the police - the only option in that venue was that he would have gone and collected the AKs, loaded them, fought it out and died because they were overwhelmingly too many police. But he didn't look in his temper thinking it's kids just ringing the doorbell for nothing and playfully. He opened it, it was the police. He didn't know what to say and the police said to him, "Is that car parked in the road your car?" And he looks at it and says, "No." "Is that one of your visitor's cars?" He said, "No, why, why?" They said, "We're investigating a possibility that it's stolen." So he says, "No, I don't know." And they said, "Thank you very much", and left. They didn't walk into the house.

NW     If they had they'd have found a room full of AK47s.

MM     Well either he would have been arrested but the greater likelihood had I been there, I would have looked through the side window and seen here's the cops, ten, twenty of them, assumed that they have cottoned on to us and said we can't just surrender so we'd have to fight it out and we'd have to go down fighting because if you surrendered you were definitely heading for torture. Here you were pants down with all this equipment and they would have to torture us to extract information. That was how they conducted themselves. Then at the end of that torture you still might be killed because what a coup it would be for the enemy to announce in the papers three days later that here's the dead body of Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda, we captured them in the country right at the border as they were trying to enter. They wouldn't say you'd been in the country for a year or two years. They'd say you just tried to enter and we are such a powerful state that right there at the border we killed them.

NW     That was a pretty close –

MM     So I am saying those were the inherent dangers and Siphiwe only because he was angry and tired lived to tell the story -

NW     That was a pretty close shave.

MM     It was, it was really nerve-wracking. I think his nerves really packed in after the event.

NW     There's one other thing I want to ask actually. Where would the arms  … (break in recording)

MM     We tracked Ronnie Kasrils and said we had to get down urgently to Durban. I started clearing up all the houses, safe houses in Jo'burg, foreign people who were living in the country, went and tipped them off. Janet and myself cleaned their houses, walls of fingerprints, places that I was using as accommodation. Then rushed off to Natal, knew that the house was rented by a doctor who had not ever met me but I knew roughly in which suburb the house was and that his ceiling was stored with weaponry. Went to a medical conference, asked around for the name of this doctor, tracked him and then went there. But that night Ronnie was exhausted. I picked up one of the other comrades in Durban, asked her to get to this venue with the car, went there, got into the house, took out the stuff from the ceiling, loaded it into a car and said, "I don't know where you have to take this but you're part of the underground, find some place but get away with this car load." We did that that night. Next morning by about eleven, twelve, heard the police had raided the house, arrested the doctor but found the ceiling empty.

NW     I want to move on to – there's a gap I want to fill in that we haven't done and that's I want to come back to where we are now which was the raids which effectively ended Operation Vula and your arrest and so on, one or two reflections at the end. But what I want to do is you haven't said to us how you got into the country. Go right back to the beginning of Operation Vula. We haven't had you tell that. How did you do it?

MM     We decided in the case of Operation Vula to take the hard route into the country. We had used the co-operation of friends in Holland, in Amsterdam, who were in the theatre world and they agreed to do our disguises. In fact they made two wigs for me in one night, handmade with human hair. There was a dentist also in Holland who prepared my disguised teeth which fitted over my normal teeth, I don't have artificial teeth. So he prepared a set of teeth that fitted over my top front teeth to make them larger and to push out my lip and he made two sets for my side teeth just to fractionally move out my cheeks. Plus they did the training in devising the different forms of hairdo so that one would look older or younger, so that we could change appearances for different regions of the country, unknown to them of what we were doing. In Siphiwe's case they prepared also under the shirt jacket which would make his upper body larger than it is and then the clothing outfit to go with that.

     So, false documents were prepared in the Soviet Union, passports. We then flew off from Moscow in one appearance to Amsterdam by separate flights. In Amsterdam we had done reconnaissance and found you could switch passports, identity and ticket without going through immigration. We had in our bags concealed compartments. We did that. I boarded a KLM flight to Nairobi with a view to taking a flight from there to Swaziland. Siphiwe boarded another flight to Nairobi and we then switched on to the next day's flight to take us to Swaziland.  Got into Swaziland there Ivan, the co-ordinator, was on the ground. He had prepared ways for us to cross the border by foot.

     To cut a long story short, besides the sagas that went on, we eventually found that the safest way when everything looked wrong, I went that night to personally look at what were the problems of crossing over because the SADF were occupying a hillock on the SA side of the border and the escort who was going to guide us across had reported that it's too dangerous. So I went that night, found it was full moon, interviewed the local inhabitants on the Swazi side and got a vital piece of information that next day was going to be the switching of the roster of this defence force staff and it was a day time switch. We knew this because they used to borrow drums from the Swazi side of the border for storing water on the hillock. Having learnt that information I decided we would cross at twelve o'clock the next day, in broad daylight.

     So Siphiwe and I dressed up as Swazi peasants, put on overalls, carried arms under our overalls and ambled across the border while Tootsie Memela crossed independently like an ordinary civilian and she went across the road, the main road, into a clump of trees and waited for us to arrive. We got there, went into the bush, took off our overalls, gave her our arms, now pulled out our documents and relied on our documents and then through Oshoek border we had made emergency arrangements for a citizen of Holland working in Swaziland to go across in a Fiat 127, little Fiat, go through Oshoek border, come out and drive along that path and come to those trees and on the roadside he would find the two of us. He picked us up and he dropped us in Johannesburg outside the Carlton Hotel because we didn't want him to know where we were heading.

NW     You were outside a five-star hotel in the centre of Johannesburg, right under the nose of the authorities.

MM     Round about nine o'clock at night and I knew that if we were dropped at the Carlton it would not look untoward, an African and an Indian man, reasonably dressed, tie and suit, nice leather luggage, baggage, and we could take a taxi from there and break the link.

NW     How did it feel being back in SA?

MM     We were obviously nervous, on a high adrenaline mode, things had gone wrong so we had to detour to Jo'burg instead of Durban which was going to be our starting point. The Durban people who were supposed to come and pick us up had left Durban but had not arrived at the border and there was no trace of them and we assumed that they had been arrested. So therefore we thought they didn't know our identities, they knew they were picking up two people so we said, right, let's head for Johannesburg and we will have time to assess what's the damage in Durban. So you're in a great adrenaline rush, high state of awareness and alertness and vigilance, and you were ready to see ghosts at every street corner.

NW     But you were home?

MM     Yes I was home. We were successfully home but I couldn't report to Lusaka that were successfully home. I was so nervous that that night with the communications system not in place, I was given a number in Harare to phone and I then had arranged that if that phone call went there he would be able to understand that we were safe and accidents, as they do happen, the person in whose house that phone was located happened to be an ANC underground comrade and as soon as he heard my voice on this public phone, when I'm ostensibly for the last year in a hospital in Soviet Union, dying, he recognised my voice and he straight away said, "Comrade Mac! How are you?" And I was very, "Fuck off!"

NW     Right, two of us are now laughing. All I thought, your mouth comes out on the tape – we'll bleep that. Did you allow yourself an emotion? You were back in South Africa, South Africa has very particular smells, it has a very particular air, this was the place.

MM     When you are in the position that I was placed in you have to have a peculiar mechanism of control over your feelings. For having reached in safely the instinct, the normal human instinct would be to celebrate and to recognise that even that nervous charge a celebration would do good. So I said to Siphiwe, go to your hotel room and get yourself a nice drink but, I said, "I'm not coming there. We can't be seen together in the hotel room." I went to my hotel room to say, "Right, now, where's the danger and what do we have to do tomorrow?"

NW     No celebration?

MM     No, I had a drink but it was not a celebratory drink, it was a drink to just get my nerves down. But I say it's a peculiar position, you cannot afford to be part of the celebration. You have to anticipate the next danger and on the other hand that position requires that when you are in danger and your lives are threatened it is your task not to run. You have to stand up and protect your comrades and let them get away to safety before you look to your own safety, both of which scenarios require to operate against what is normal human instinct.

NW     I just need a period of time here, how long was it, you described very vividly how the communications link was set up, how long was it before you were able to set up that communications link?

MM     The first thing – I think within the first month the rudimentary one began to operate because I recall it was brought in by a courier who was a hostess on KLM Airlines so I had to come down to Jo'burg and pick it up from her in the Holiday Inn and KLM at that time was operating on the basis that its overnight stop was in Nairobi. So it was the first month that the enciphered, relatively slow enciphering but still over the computer, and the acoustic coupling had not yet been developed so the noise factor had to be resolved and then we were transmitting from private telephones and within the second month we had resolved the public telephone line.

NW     I want to take you – we've spoken, again very vividly, about the course of Operation Vula within South Africa and you started to tell us about when it was rumbled. What happened to you?

MM     In my case - the first  arrests took place on 8 July in Durban, two comrades didn't return from a mission in Inanda and by Monday it was clear that something had happened to them. By Thursday I got a message to indicate that Gebhuza had now been arrested and many others. By that time Intelligence in Jo'burg was telling me that the South African government at the highest level was saying that leading members of the ANC, members of National Executive would be arrested. By 18 July my information said that three members of the National Executive would be arrested and I discussed it with Walter Sisulu. Madiba was out of town, he was in Malaysia and he arrived on his birthday and Walter proposed that I should be at the Jo'burg airport to meet Madiba and consult him.

     Madiba arrived and word came to me in that throng of people that I should rather proceed to his house. The party went on at his house and then I got word from his security that he's gone to bed and he wants me at his house at seven am. At seven am I was there and I briefed him what was happening and I said to him, "I expect the arrests now to move on to the three people", and he said, "Who do you think they are?" I said, "I'm a little bit puzzled but I think that certainly I'm a candidate. That information is clear, the surveillance is showing that they are coming for me." He immediately picked up the phone to Comrade Jacob Zuma and asked him to arrange an appointment for that day with FW de Klerk, the President.

     And as to what steps I would take we agreed that I was continuing to clean up all traces, instructing all cadres to hide away safely. I said I could not reach everybody, I could not reach Cape Town because I was under surveillance so we said lead a normal life, overtly ANC at the ANC head office. The party launch was due on 25 July and if I am arrested make sure that I am arrested in such circumstances that it cannot be hidden away because that would be information to all those that I can't reach in the country to take cover. Indeed that's what happened on the night of 25 July.

NW     What happened?

MM     I left the ANC head office which was at that time in Sauer Street, the office building, and I drove to the house where I was staying in Mayfair at Mohammed Valli Moosa and Elsabe's place and just as I came up in front of the house and stopped the car on the roadside the police were there.

NW     They arrested you?

MM     They arrested me.

NW     What did they say?

MM     Oh they said, "Do you stay here?" I said yes. They said, "Let's go in. We're arresting you and we want to search your room." I said, "Fine. Let's go."

NW     They had found what, it turned out, about Operation Vula?

MM     Through the arrests they had found in the possession, or in a safe house but in the possession of Gebhuza a set of communications which were not enciphered. He had deciphered some of them and he had not re-enciphered them.

NW     A bit careless.

MM     I think that the indemnity of the 20th, my going out of the country illegally and returning legally, had created a sense of laxness. But also he until then was not seeing all my communications and therefore must have been enthralled reading the reports, both familiarising him with what's what, who's who, where, but in that state the simple mechanism of re-enciphering them he didn't carry out presumably saying, tomorrow I'll do it. And through those rounds of detention they found a number of safe places in and around Durban and they also found locations of various safe places in Johannesburg but to all the Jo'burg places that they went to they found them empty and deserted, so they found no leads in Jo'burg. Of course the leads got cut from that weekend trip that Ronnie and I paid to Durban where we had moved all the arms to safer places. So as far as I recall they captured a few weapons, one rifle in Gebhuza's car in a concealed compartment. They found the place where the workshop was and the concealed tanks, the doctored tanks were being made, but they didn't get further beyond that and no arrests in Jo'burg or Cape Town took place.

NW     They held you for quite a while. What did they do?

MM     The same night they put me under all night interrogation, threatened me, and then they went on attempting to interrogate me but I had a strong card. They had found the NEC resolution in my handwriting taken at the NEC meeting on 20 July of what stance we would take in our delegation at the talks with the regime in August. So I was able to say, "Look chaps, this name you're throwing around, Operation Vula, yes I am the commander. You say I've been in the country? Yes I've been in the country illegally but you'd better stop thinking that I'm going to talk and you'd better handle this thing carefully because your government is now in talks and whatever's happened we should not use it to jettison those talks because if that happens the repercussions may be such that your own bosses will dump you one day."

     They threatened but they didn't do anything until 7 August. They allowed Madiba to see me on 7 August and after seeing him where I told him that they are threatening me, etc., he told them it would be unacceptable. As soon as he left they took me back to the interrogation room and General Basie Smit, who was in charge of the visit of Madiba and who was present during the visit because Basie Smit offered to leave the room and Madiba said, "No, sit, sit." And he said, "Tell me, how are they treating you?" So we talked but when he left they took me back to the interrogation room at Sandton Police Station and Basie Smit came in and he said, "I don't care what has been discussed but we have learnt that you have agents in our security forces and there is no way that I am letting you off without giving us that information." And I said to him, "General, I don't understand what you are saying because you are then licensing your juniors to use torture." And he said, "I don't care what it takes but that information I want."

     So then I was slapped around a bit. It didn't work. I said to them, "Better go and ask the General in charge of Witwatersrand who had tortured me in 1964 whether any of that is going to work." I played on the fact that they needed to handle this thing sensitively and over the next bout of interrogation they came and they said that they would like to trade information with me. Would I identify our agents in their security force and they would give me the identity of a member of the National Executive who was working for a foreign intelligence service. My stance was, "Look, if it's an agent of a foreign agency in the National Executive I know the identity. It's not something that I can trade. But secondly, more fundamentally, I'm not prepared to trade unless I'm out of detention and released. Then we can talk but until then it's off the agenda." It went on like that.

NW     Did they threaten you with torture again? Were you scared?

MM     Yes. Sure, when you're facing a situation like that you're afraid but the only way to survive torture that I'd learnt in 1964 was to focus your mind on the next step and to focus your mind on what is needed at that moment. I knew roughly what they know and I therefore knew what they don't know. It was a strong hand you were holding even in the face of potential torture and the slapping around. I had reached a point where I had said, besides going and saying that they should consult Erasmus, there was an occasion where the same officer returned into the interrogation room a few days later and threatened me and I said, "But have you checked with the General?" He said, "Yes I have." I said, "These punches and slaps, they're not going to work."

     On one occasion thereafter one of the officers slammed me against the wall and punched me around and I stopped and I said, "You just don't understand me because you should understand that even killing me is not going to frighten me. My own position is that while you can administer that with me standing against the wall I'm going to kick your balls and it doesn't matter whether you've left me bloodied but all I would want is that I've kicked your balls so hard that I will have the pleasure of seeing you scream." I said, "That's the rules of the game today because you can't afford to kill me. It is known and you're not going to get away with killing me and you can't afford to leave me with visible injuries. So if all you've got is to try and frighten me and to use sleep deprivation and even that may be a scandal."

     So it was a changed scenario from 1964, really changed, and because we had penetrated their intelligence I could play on them because they would come and say, "Er – must have the intelligence people in our security force." "Look, what's your problem? I'm not going to fool you. It's not relying on black people collecting the bin in the security officers' room and reading the scraps that are supposed to be shredded." He says, "You mean it's higher up?" I said, "Please, don't you understand, your own people know that you can't last and when that happens your own kith and kin are now prepared to work with us."

     Now that was disorientating because they'd never had a detainee tell them that and off they rushed to Durban, leaving me in Jo'burg, to go through the records in Durban to find out who's the guy because their instinct was it's got to be a black man. Then their instinct was it's got to be a junior, a cleaner, a messenger. And I said, "Do you think that those messages, the content of which you've read on the records on the computer, are just stolen? Can't you see there I have asked – give me a report, what does the enemy know about uMkhonto in Pietermartizburg region? And that report is a response to that request. Yes, what I've removed from there is your agent number, etc., but it's an authentic report." I say, "I've got the addresses of all your officers, who they are, where they stay, their car numbers and their family circumstances. Do you think I can get that from your bins? But do you want a trade-off? You release me and as a free person we meet to discuss what information we exchange."

NW     I'm going to ask you the question your torturers asked, who was that person?

MM     Who was the person? There was no one person in the security forces, there were several. There were several who fell in our laps, some had been co-operating before I came in and we went out on a pro-active campaign to now target officers and recruit them.

NW     You never told who they were?

MM     No, never told. Some of them are still in the police force and intelligence agencies. Some of them are out now but that was a job of the Intelligence head to attend to. Not my job.

NW     Eventually you were freed?

MM     Yes. I was freed. We were brought to trial in December in Durban, nine of us. We were released on bail. They slapped a bail of R180,000 on me. The trial kept on being remanded and in March 1991 the case was dropped on the grounds that the government of the day issued an indemnity to the trialists.

NW     I've got two more questions about Operation Vula, I know we're over time and I've got only three more questions I want to ask. There's something we haven't touched on about Operation Vula that you can tell us. With Operation Vula running there were communications with Nelson Mandela?

MM     Yes. We set up a line. It was not part of our mission but looking at the developments and reading that the possibility of the negotiations were arising, that discussions were going on in prison with Madiba, I then assessed the situation and found that I thought that it was feasible to set up communications with him. I informed President Tambo and said that I think that this is a correct step to take and that I was proceeding. He came back, by that time I had set the process in motion, established contact with him and reported to him and communicated with Madiba and said, "Here I am. I'm in the country. I'll set up safe lines of communication for you directly with Lusaka."

NW     You would slip a note in the cover of a hardback book?

MM     No, not with Madiba.

NW     Tell me how it was done?

MM     With Madiba I used to visit in the underground his lawyer, Mr Ismail Ayob. I used to go there late at night and his wife would put a meal for me too. I got a description of the circumstances under which he was staying at Victor Verster Prison and the circumstances, security measures that surrounded his visits to Madiba. I then prepared a note and said, "Assume that the room has got hidden cameras, assume the place is bugged." But he described where they sat in the dining room and I did a very tiny note which I slipped across and I said, "You slip this little note under the table to Madiba and the way for him to know that you are giving him something is to mention the name Zwengendaba." We had agreed when I left prison that if Madiba ever got a message which said 'Zwengendaba' he would know it's me.

NW     What does it mean?

MM     It is the name of an African Chief. Madiba had suggested the name. And here, how many years later, I left prison in 1976, this was 1989, that's 13 years later, he has this visit and Ismail Ayob – and I said, "Ismail, go with your wife", and I said to Zamilla, "Your job is these men are going to be quaking in their boots so your job is if the warder becomes interested you need to distract attention so that the operation of slipping that note takes place successfully." And so that's how we started the communications with Madiba. I did offer him in one of the communications to describe to me all the objects, what type of pens he's got, what type of paper, stationery, what equipment, has he got a tape recorder, has he got a radio? I said I could switch those things to become, to conceal, the agents through which we could conceal things. His response was don't try anything complicated, let's just keep it simple. And so we were in communication.

NW     The notes were passed to and fro. Were they in code?

MM     No.

NW     He would just say, Oliver Tambo in Lusaka says this?

MM     No, no, no. I sent him, for example the longest document I sent him were two - firstly I sent him an assessment by Tambo of how he read the situation internationally and locally. That was a briefing document.

NW     So, carry on with the note.

MM     A briefing of the situation by Tambo. Madiba giving us the text of the letter he has written to PW Botha which was sent off to Lusaka immediately, side by side with my assessment. A briefing to Madiba of what I thought was the strategy of the regime with his possible release and then OR (Oliver Tambo) sent the draft of the Harare Declaration and wanted me to urgently consult, I think within a week I had to send him the responses from about ten leading people in the country as well as get it to Madiba in time. That is how some of the comrades in the underground discovered that I was in touch with Madiba because I had given the draft declaration to those that I had consulted on a narrow strip of paper in six point type face and I had sent it also on such a strip of paper to Madiba.

     Madiba was now seeing delegations from the Mass Democratic Movement and there in one of the delegations was Billy Nair who was in touch with the underground in Durban. Billy goes there in this delegation and Madiba says to them, "Look, the Harare Declaration is being prepared, these are the ideas. What are you people's thoughts?" And Billy looked at this piece of paper and he said, "Jesus, that's the same piece of paper that Mac has given me to give an opinion." So he got back to Durban and the next time he saw me he said, "You bloody swine, you've been in touch with Madiba." I said, "What do you mean? I don't know what you're talking about." He says, "The same bloody piece of paper I've seen in his hands from which he was discussing the content of the Harare Declaration." So he put two and two together and knew that I was in touch with Madiba.

NW     It was top secret.

MM     Yes, it had to be. It had to be. I think that the regime which had kept him at Victor Verster were satisfied they were in full control and they were discussing with him as an individual. They still were pursuing a strategy that they could split the movement in one way or the other. They were looking for the fault lines and they hoped that they could propel one or other section of the ANC into a position in discussions with them which would cause a fracturing of the movement. But in the meantime he was briefing, unknown to them OR was briefing him, he was securely briefing OR and then overtly he was calling the Mass Democratic Movement, trade unions in delegations to come and meet him.

     But I was doing the same thing. I had gone and met Govan Mbeki who was under ban in Port Elizabeth. I had met him for three hours, I had taken him a 30-page briefing from Oliver Tambo. I had gone to Harry Gwala, briefed him. I was in touch with leaders of the Mass Democratic Movement in the churches, etc., and they were being  briefed.

NW     All of this via that flat in London?

MM     Via the flat in London, via venues in Holland. In Lusaka initially the communications centre was in my home, that is my wife's home. She was working as a technical adviser for the preferential trade area of Africa so she had been given a house and one of the rooms was used as the communications. She was doing it until she met the accident in 1988. She was injured and then they rented another place and they staffed it with people from the movement and supporters. One was a lady from Holland who had trained now in the use of the communications and they were manning the communications centre in Zambia.

NW     Under the nose of the authorities you were communicating directly with Nelson Mandela?

MM     Directly with Nelson Mandela and Nelson was communicating almost on a 24-hour turnaround with Oliver Tambo.

NW     Extraordinary.

MM     I think it's one of the things that has to go down as an achievement of Vula. I think that the communication system gave Oliver Tambo an effective possibility and capacity to align the responses of the different elements of the struggle and to keep them focused on the strategy and it allowed us the opportunity to begin to gather the forces behind the negotiations process in an aligned way.

NW     What – you can answer, I promise, these next questions in a very short time – during this period of Operation Vula there were strikes, there were protests, all sorts of things. I remember going on a train and there were political lectures on a train when people were singing. Did you know about all these things?

MM     Yes, I think we were very well connected.

NW     Did you direct them?

MM     No. It was not the objective of our exercise to be directing. It was the objective to integrate with the leadership on the ground and ensure that whatever was being done was aligned to the strategy. It was not a question of do this, do that. I know that the hospital boycott that came out was an interaction from our underground reporting to Lusaka and then Lusaka inviting a delegation of the Mass Democratic Movement and then we briefing them who in that delegation were people that they should talk to on a confidential basis and from that discussion the UDF/COSATU returned and said, right, let's concretise, we go out on a mass defiance campaign on the  hospitals, etc., and they knew that what they were doing was aligned to the strategy.

NW     When the apartheid government said the ANC was behind a lot of this, ironically they were right?

MM     They were right and wrong because in their mindset they thought when they said 'behind' they meant we are dictating. So in that they were wrong. They were right in that the aspirations of all those who were developing spontaneously was being interacted with and guided so that a strategic sense of the need for mass action which did not break away from serving the common objective of bringing an end to apartheid. So that when we talked about the Harare Declaration here was held in South Africa, under the UDF/COSATU banner, the Conference for Democratic South Africa. That mass conference with delegates from all over the country agreed to support the idea of negotiations on the framework of the Harare Declaration. Through that interaction we had facilitated that to happen without enormous debate and fractious developments within our ranks. They were right and wrong.

NW     Did Operation Vula succeed or fail?

MM     It's a judgement that you should never ask me. I think that a sober assessment has to be made by people outside of me. I think it has its place in history. I think it has several pointers of the weaknesses of the movement but it also has pointers of the type of daring and boldness that was needed in any struggle for freedom.

NW     Can I ask you something else? We want to use this answer in a way to introduce Operation Vula. For somebody who hasn't heard of Operation Vula at all, how would you describe Operation Vula? If someone said to you, well I'm saying it –

MM     It was to locate the external leadership within the country so that together with the leaders on the ground we could give overall political and military direction to the struggle. If history seeks a judgement there is no answer because when Castro raided the Moncada Barracks with a small force it was doomed to failure, but asked later on after he had served his sentence, "Would you do it again?" he said, "I would."

NW     Would you do it again?

MM     Yes I would. In the circumstances of those times, yes I would. In the circumstances of those times what was needed was comrades in the struggle who were single-mindedly committed to the struggle and were prepared to lay their life on the line and particularly as leaders who were calling on people to sacrifice their lives you had to see the leaders willing to give their lives.

NW     I think we're there. David, tell me, we've got about a minute?

DP     Very quickly, just to let us know, what happened to Tshabalala?

NW     What happened, I've just forgotten their names – tell us what happened, the two that were arrested, who were they, what happened, the two first arrests?

MM     The first two arrests were both people who had come in from outside, from exile, and settled in the country clandestinely. They were arrested accidentally by being spotted by an Ascari, that is an MK cadre who had been turned around by the police to work for them. They were picked up, the regime denied that they had ever been picked up but the matter came up at a Truth & Reconciliation Commission where a Brigadier and his team asked for amnesty and according to their confession these people had died in detention, they were taken to the river mouth at Tugela, they were wrapped – each body was wrapped on concrete post and in a chicken mesh wire and thrown into the sea at the river mouth. That is why they said the bodies could not be produced. I am satisfied that they were murdered. There is no other answer to that question and I am satisfied that the absence of the production of their bodies and the spin that they put in their story has left a wound in the relatives of these two comrades because they feel that the whole truth has not been told.

NW     You could have been killed like that?

MM     Yes, yes. I think that in the circumstances pre-1990 if they had captured me while I was still clandestinely in the country they would have either killed me and dramatised it, otherwise they would have quietly killed me and never let it known that they had killed me.

NW     Was Operation Vula a turning point?

MM     I don't think it can, in the way things have unfolded, be described as a turning point but it was certainly a lifting of the struggle to a different plane.

NW     We'll stop there.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.