Escape From Pretoria

Arrested in 1978, after two years as an underground African National Congress (ANC) operative in apartheid South Africa, Tim Jenkin was tried as a terrorist and sentenced to 12 years in prison for distributing anti-apartheid leaflets. Such a harsh sentence was given for what South African activists called “leaflet bombing”: the mass distribution of handouts through harmless leaflet launchers, which would explode in crowded areas. The leaflets read: “The ANC says to Vosters and his gang: your days are coming to end!! We will take our country back” or “Let us advance our liberation struggle! Brothers and sisters: we must organise now for an armed struggle which will liberate our people”.

Jenkin was placed in the maximum security prison, Pretoria Central, intended specifically for white political prisoners. In an excerpt from the documentary The Vula Connection, Jenkin describes his harrowing escape. Over the course of a year, at the prison’s woodshop, Tim and two other fellow activists surreptitiously crafted wooden keys for every single prison lock, eventually collecting more keys than the prison wardens! On December 11, 1979, they escaped from Pretoria Central by using homemade keys to open ten different locked doors.

It’s not surprising Jenkin considers himself to be not only a lock picker, but also a hacker. At every hacker conference, there are tables, strewn with tools dedicated to the art of breaking locks. Making, breaking, and fortifying security, whether the barrier is digital or physical, is the province of hacking. Some hackers have landed in jail, but Jenkin may be the only one to have broken out by making wooden keys. Alongside “breaking security”, Jenkin is also a dedicated hobbyist: for almost a decade, he built, improved and maintained an encrypted communication system to allow ANC operatives and leaders in exile to securely communicate with each other. Jenkin and a few others experimented with the latest cutting edge technology of the time (videotext, modems, Sinclair QL, etc.) and older communication systems (telex, DTMF, acoustic couplers, one-time pads, etc.) to bridge the existing infrastructural gap between Great Britain, South Africa and Zambia. Jenkin had a deep commitment to establishing the strong, secure communications of activists during the struggle against apartheid. His passion for technology, his curiosity about how things work, and his relentless system-building make him an emblematic hacker.  Without Jenkin, the ANC wouldn’t have had the communication system they did; who knows what would have happened in the last years of the revolution without it?

Back to Hacktivism