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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Documentary On Operation Vula: 12 December 2002
Presenter: Nigel Cook.
Produced by All Out Productions.
With Charles Nqakula, Tim Jenkin, Mac Maharaj, Connie Braam, Nadine Gordimer, Pik Botha
NC Up the stairs to a top floor flat off the Camden Road in North London, these days owned by a housing association. It's like any other in the area, subdivided from an old Victorian house. What the neighbours in the late 1980s didn't know was that from here, using some of the first computer modems and an array of aerials on the roof, the world's oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress, was able to talk in code to its secret agents in the field in South Africa and to its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
There's no sign today of what went on here then except for one thing. As you walk through here in the bathroom and you take a screwdriver and undo a panel at the side of the bath, there's a floorboard out underneath the bath and a compartment underneath it. There's a hole in the wall over there as well. This where they kept the code books. They kept the key disks. They kept everything they needed to run Operation Vula.
Using coded messages with a system based here guerrillas in South Africa would place orders for rocket launchers, for grenades and for AK47 rifles. There were discussions about targets, tactics and mass demonstrations. And the first communications in more than twenty years with Nelson Mandela in his prison cell. This flat was the heart of Operation Vula.
CN It would start a war basically, a war of independence. In other words we would have combat units that would fight against the soldiers, against the police of the regime. We would bomb installations of the regime. That is what the insurrection would be about.
NC Charles Nqakula lives in a ministerial house in Cape Town. Ironically he's now Minister for Safety and Security. He was a commander of the operation the ANC called Vula, after the Zulu word for 'open'. The idea was to open the way to what Mr Nqakula calls 'a people's war'. He leaves little room for doubt about this operation's ruthlessness.
CN I viewed myself as a revolutionary. I was a guerrilla and I was going to kill. This would have meant that I would have killed people that we construed as our enemy. These would be the armed forces of the government but as well as government officials which would include even government ministers.
NC You would have had no hesitation in killing the minister who used to live in this house, for instance?
CN I would have no hesitation in killing.
(Song – Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica)
NC Forty thousand people sing God Bless Africa at a mass funeral for township victims of political violence in the late eighties. A state of emergency was in force. The security forces had unprecedented power. The protests were continuing but the ANC, illegal in SA, could not direct them. Fighting apartheid long distance was not ideal.
There were the very first signs of negotiation. A small team of white government officials began meeting with Nelson Mandela in his prison cell but the ANC had no way of influencing what Mr Mandela said, nor of knowing if he was making concessions.
The key was communication. Tim Jenkin lived in that flat on the Camden Road, a South African exile who had ingeniously escaped from the high security Pretoria Central Prison. He had himself worked underground in South Africa and knew the problems.
TJ I knew that communications was one of the most important things and the inability to communicate often alienated people back in South Africa because they really couldn't receive instructions from their handlers abroad in Lusaka or in London.
NC ANC guerrillas assumed that any telephone they used in South Africa would be monitored so they devised a laborious code system with books and couriers who would take the messages on. Tim Jenkin decided that personal computers, then relatively new, were the answer. What if a message could be coded and sent in a series of sounds down a telephone? It's technology that's taken for granted now. It took Tim Jenkin eighteen months of painstaking experiments with circuit boards and a soldering iron to find the ideal system.
TJ They would type the message in plain language and then they would encrypt it and then they would send it through the acoustic coupling to the small tape recorder. They would take the tape recorder to a public telephone booth and with a long lead and a tiny little speaker in their hand they would simply play that into the telephone to an answering machine in London. Later we would just play them back from the answering machine back into the computer where they would appear as a stream of random numbers, and of course that was the encrypted message. Then you would just enter the keyword and the message would come up in clear on the screen.
NC The idea of Operation Vula was to set up a network of ANC leaders inside South Africa. There would be commanders and agents establishing stores of weapons and ammunition. Hardly anyone inside the organisation knew.
To lead Operation Vula Oliver Tambo, the ANC president, and Joe Slovo who headed the South African Communist Party, chose a senior colleague Mac Maharaj. He had been in jail on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. To many inside South Africa he was a hero.
MM Tambo and Slovo came to my home in Zambia and they said to me they have selected me to be the first one to go into the country.
NC 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 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 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.
NC This was to be the biggest operation the ANC had ever mounted, expensive too. To maintain absolute secrecy the money couldn't show up on the books.
MM We went and raised it from a private donor in the UK who gave us our money, R100000 which was £50000, but specifically devoted to developing the communications system.
NC 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.
NC It was a high risk strategy. Mac Maharaj was well known to the South African Police. He wasn't allowed into the country at all. If he and the other Vula commanders were found and captured the apartheid government could declare a major victory. Disguise was essential.
CB He was slim and short. He had a problem with one eye. It was somebody who you could recognise miles away.
NC Connie Braam was the head of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Amsterdam. For Operation Vula she had to give those returning to South Africa a new look and a new identity. Actors trained Mac Maharaj to walk differently, he had clothes made with padding to make him look fatter and a wig.
CB We got the real best wigmaker of Holland involved and that is the wigmaker of the Opera here in Amsterdam. He made something very special, he made a sort of model of Mac's skull in foam and on the basis of that with very thin material and with real human hair he knitted a wig that would fit really like a glove over his head. It was a bit more difficult to put it on and to wear it but it looked absolutely natural.
NC Mac Maharaj made several visits to Amsterdam: creating a new identity took three months. Not even his colleagues in Lusaka could be let in on what he was about to do. The cover story was that he was going for a kidney operation in Moscow. In fact he was smuggled into Swaziland, ready to cross the border into South Africa. It was August 1988 with another ANC agent, and both in disguise, they simply walked across. A car awaited, the driver was an ANC sympathiser who knew nothing about Operation Vula. He dropped them off outside the Carlton, a five star hotel in central Johannesburg.
How did it feel being back in South Africa?
MM We were obviously nervous, on a high adrenaline mode, high state of awareness and alertness and vigilance and you were ready to see ghosts at every street corner.
NC Mac Maharaj has an office now high above the streets of Johannesburg in the plush headquarters of the bank of which he's a director. There's no threat any longer. When he arrived the critical task was to contact the ANC using the new equipment devised by Tim Jenkin in London. Would the system work?
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 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.
NC You must have thought it's not going to work.
MM No, no, I was confident it was going to work. But there came the payphone card, but by that time I was renting hotel rooms under false names, walking into the hotel room and using their lines 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.
NC So the coin boxes became central to Operation Vula. The messages were getting through to London. From the flat in Camden Tim Jenkin sent them on to the ANC in Lusaka. The communication system was working. For the first time the ANC in exile was talking to its guerrillas underground in South Africa. Mac Maharaj recruited agents locally, a dozen more senior officials began to arrive in the months that followed, each with a disguise devised by Connie Braam. She recruited Dutch air stewards to smuggle in computer disks containing refinements to the modem system. Also arriving in South Africa, the deadly hardware of Operation Vula, weapons driven in by car hidden in part of a special petrol tank. These tanks would be swapped just over the border, often in neighbouring Botswana.
MM One of the classical cars that suited us and allowed us to do very fast turnaround was the Toyota Cressida and the reason was that its petrol tank could be removed very easily 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.
NC I suppose the beauty of it, the Toyota Cressida, it's a very common car, common in Africa.
MM Very common car. Even a black person driving it across the border as long as owning that second hand Cressida was not out of sync with his position in society.
NC 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, anti-personnel mines, the lot.
NC The weapons were used to prepare guerrillas for what the ANC regarded as its people's war, what the apartheid government called terrorism. There were some unusual training exercises.
MM 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.
NC There were lots of bombs on railway lines, I remember, reported back in that time. These were all practice?
MM These were practice. It was the essential first stage of the training. It 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.
NC A peaceful garden in one of Johannesburg's oldest and most exclusive suburbs, the last place you'd expect to find a commander of a secret military operation. Perhaps that's why the ANC identified this as a possible safe house for the leaders of Operation Vula. It's the home of Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel prize winning author.
NG One afternoon there was a ring at my doorbell and I opened the door and there was Mac. He said that he had to move from where he was and that he needed to find somewhere else to live and could I help him with this. I said I couldn't think of anybody because everybody that I knew who would be prepared to do it had already done it and was under surveillance and then you have to be careful that you don't bring the very person that you're helping into the hands of the police. Now when he had gone, and for ever after, I have reproached myself that I should have said, 'Stay here'.
NC Mac Maharaj was running an underground operation at that time, Operation Vula. It was ruthless. It could have involved killing people.
NG Yes I know but it was in response to a situation that had no compunction at all about killing people and had been doing it literally for generations and I think that this was a last resort. We were coming to the stage when it was absolutely crucial that apartheid should end, perhaps really violent means were called for.
NC At the political rallies that were allowed they were still singing about Nelson Mandela but his release seemed as distant as ever. The government was continuing it's occasional secret meetings with him. Mandela would accept nothing but unconditional release. In Lusaka they didn't know whether he was softening his approach or not. And so Operation Vula made its most important contact, with Nelson Mandela himself, the man activists called Madiba. In disguise Mac Maharaj went to see Mandela's lawyer, Ismail Ayob, who met with his client regularly.
MM I did a very tiny note 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.
NC What does it mean?
MM It is the name of an African Chief. Madiba had suggested the name. I left prison in 1976, this was 1989, 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, has he got a tape recorder, has he got a radio. I said I could switch those things to become 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.
NC The notes were passed to and fro. Were they in code?
NC Mandela passed on his responses to Ismail Ayob. The lawyer gave them to a contact from Operation Vula. Agents used a computer to code them and send them on using one of Tim Jenkin's special devices. At the flat in Camden messages were coming in day and night. The first one from Nelson Mandela though was very special.
TJ We knew that this process was taking place, we'd followed the whole process of getting the lawyer to agree to take messages and receive messages from Mandela. So we had expected something to happen but we weren't sure when it was going to happen and suddenly one day this message just appeared on my screen. I deciphered it and there was this message from Nelson Mandela. You can imagine what a surprise I got because this was like the first written word from the main in twenty years. There it was on my computer. It was like so valuable, I just wanted to keep it. It was encrypted again and sent down to Lusaka in the usual way.
NC Do you remember what that message said? Did you say anything? Did you let out a little shout?
TJ I think I let out a shout, I think I was very, very excited. I can't remember exactly the content of the message but it was to do with his talks with the government, the people who were coming and what they were saying to him. So it was really about what they were saying and he was giving a report really about what had happened.
NC It meant that while the South African authorities thought they were talking to Nelson Mandela alone, in fact his every response, his every statement from now on would be discussed with headquarters in Lusaka. It was a critical moment. But the pressure was high, in Camden it took its toll. Was Mac Maharaj asking too much? Tim Jenkin again.
TJ Sometimes he didn't understand the load of our work because we didn't only work for him, we were doing all kinds of things for Vula in general and arranging his couriers and so on. Looking back I can understand, obviously his situation was far more stressful than ours. He was in South Africa with the security police looking down his neck, I presume, and he couldn't take risks. He wanted his responses immediately.
NC A tumultuous welcome for Nelson Mandela as he steps out of the house again. Winnie Mandela at his side. Other leaders, Walter Sisulu doing the toyi-toyi dance.
February 1990. Crowds in Soweto welcome Nelson Mandela home, a free man. Secret communications meant the ANC knew what was about to happen. They knew there were no conditions attached. This surely was the beginning of a new South Africa. The ANC was no longer illegal, activists could now return openly. But even as supporters celebrated the ANC decided to continue Operation Vula. Talks were starting but there was to be no suspension of the secret plans for violence. Charles Nqakula the security minister who was a Vula commander.
CN We couldn't trust them. Remember it was purely in the beginning talks about talks. So we could not at that stage believe that what was being started would have some kind of permanence.
NC Operation Vula was there. The guns and the people's war was on standby.
CN Yes it was on standby and if anything had gone wrong we would have, of course, called upon our combat units to then move in terms of the programme that had been defined.
NC The programme, what? You'd have started blowing things up? You'd have attacked targets?
CN And we would have killed.
NC The underground military operation was an extraordinary insurance policy against the negotiations going wrong. But as the talks began the South African police were still in the service of the apartheid government and they had a stroke of luck. They arrested, by chance, two men who turned out to be ANC guerrillas, Vula agents. The police tortured them. They found unencoded computer disks and began to learn about the underground network. The two men were never seen alive again, their bodies were wrapped in chicken wire, encased in concrete and thrown into a river. The evidence the police had from their brutal interrogation pointed to Mac Maharaj, now a part of the ANC negotiating team. He had left South Africa secretly, shed his disguise and returned in triumph pretending he had been away for years. In July 1990 the police arrested him. This was a prisoner who had been tortured before. He knew what to expect.
MM 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. 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 have kicked your balls so hard that I will have the pleasure of seeing you scream. 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 all you've got is to try and frighten me and to use sleep deprivation and even that may be a scandal.'
NC The sounds of the African bush as heard at the country retreat of Pik Botha, the former Foreign Minister. Mr Botha was part of the government's negotiating team as details of Operation Vula became public. The talks were going well, the revelation of a secret military network with detailed plans for revolution was a shock.
PB When an exercise of that nature then, a plan, operation is then revealed, one definitely feels terribly disappointed, almost to a feeling of betrayal, almost here we were led up the garden path. We committed to eradicate apartheid, committed to hand over power, committed to have a one person one vote election, committed in every respect to move towards the irreversible situation of handing power over to the majority of the people of this country through a constitutionally held election. When a thing like that then happens in the midst or in the ranks of your negotiating partners, which they were then already and not enemy any more, the first reaction is one of being betrayed.
NC But Mr Botha says he regards Mac Maharaj as a brave man for what he did. What then of the torture by the security police, of the deaths at their hands of the two Vula agents they arrested?
PB I have never excused the killing of any human being, really, for whatever purpose.
NC And Mac Maharaj threatened with torture.
PB Yes. I'm not privy to that.
NC You wouldn't condone it or you would?
PB Of course I would be against any form of pressure or torture exerted against any human being to extract from that human being information. It's not the way it should be done. I am against it.
NC The security police did it.
PB Well yes. Your police also sometimes do things in Britain which you cannot support.
NC The negotiations survived the discovery of Operation Vula. Mac Maharaj survived his torture. Charges were laid against him but as the talks went on they were quietly dropped. And as agreement was reached on black majority rule, so Operation Vula was wound down, the insurance police was no longer needed. The security police never did find most of the weapons.
What of Mac Maharaj, the man who trained his agents to kill should they need to, the man who himself was prepared to kill for his cause? 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.