Operation Vula: Hacking the South African Apartheid

Beginning in 1988, secret messages were sent and received regularly across South Africa’s borders using an encrypted telematics (computers + telephone) system assembled during the final years of the South African liberation struggle. The system was part of “Operation Vula,” which aimed to launch a People’s War to ultimately liberate South Africans from apartheid. It allowed select activists in South Africa to communicate covertly with the senior leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) exiled in Lusaka, Zambia via London, UK, through messages of a strategic, logistic, and personal nature. The communication system was remarkably innovative given that the Internet as we know it today did not yet exist. Technically, it made use of a combination of laptop computers, acoustic coupler modems, floppy disks with an automated encrypted one-time-pad, cassette recorders, answering machines, pagers, and public or private phones.

The brains behind the encrypted system were two South Africans: Tim Jenkin and Ronnie Press (who passed away in 2009). Since the early 1980s, they tinkered with different types of devices while exiled in London, with hopes of increasing the speed and safety of communications between freedom fighters on the ground and their exiled leaders. Jenkin’s prior experience as an underground ANC operative in Cape Town—where he was arrested and jailed before managing to escape by fashioning wooden lock picks—made him sensitive to the importance of private and efficient communication for liberation struggles. Prior to Operation Vula, it often took a month to send a single message to the leadership in Zambia, and just as long to receive a response.

In 2014, South African filmmaker Marion Edmunds released her documentary The Vula Connection at the Durban International Film Festival; it was subsequently broadcast on eNews Channel Africa (eNCA), a 24-hour television news station that focuses on African stories. The film introduces us to a few key characters: Jenkin, who describes the first time a message came in; Lucia Raadschelders, a Dutch activist, who speaks about sending and receiving the encrypted messages in Lusaka; Siphiwe Nyanda, an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK)—the military wing of the ANC—military commander, who recalls writing whatever he wanted into a message and then sending it to Tim in London; Janet Love, an MK commander, who attests to the speed of automated encryption compared to the hand-written cryptography used until then.

The international hacker community has since taken notice of Tim Jenkin and the Vula encrypted communication system that embodies so many qualities often associated with an exceptional hack: elegant, clever, usable, and pragmatic. Jenkin has been invited to speak at the Berlin Logan Symposium in 2016 and to the lock picking communities in the Netherlands and the United States. In 2018, the RSA Conference gave Jenkin the first Award for Excellence in Humanitarian Service.

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