If you are aware of South Africa’s history, especially pre-1990, you’d know that the Apartheid government by the National Party not only oppressed and denied black South Africans basic human rights, but you'd also know that it policed and spied on every movement and piece of communication of political activists and those close to them. As such, it was extremely difficult, near impossible, for anti-Apartheid activists and politicians in and out of the country to not only move without being noticed, but to communicate without their communications being intercepted.

This made it necessary necessary that if activists, led by the African National Congress (ANC), were to overthrow the oppressive government of the day that they find a different method to communicate.

Enter Operation Vula in the 1980s - an operation and encryption technology solution that many have said played a key role in South Africa’s liberation and bypassing detection by the Apartheid government.

African National Congress (ANC) Vula Communication Network during Apartheid. Source: Ariel Acevedo

An improved method for undetected communications

Tim Jenkin, an ANC member and freedom fighter at the time, was in exile in London during the 1980s. During that period, the political party could not effectively communicate with its leaders inside South Africa without communications being intercepted.

Being a hacker, Jenkin developed the Vula Communication System - an encrypted communications network that would go on to allow the ANC’s leaders based in Lusaka, Zambia (and other parts of the world) to communicate, without detection, with underground operatives in South Africa.

It took a while to get it up and running but by 1988, two years before the late Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it was fully functional.

How the ANC's Vula Communications System worked

The following is a summary of how the ANC's Vula Communication System worked and managed to evade detection by South Africa's pre-1994 Apartheid government.

Firstly, Janet Love, a commander with the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) would visit a pre-identified safe house and type a message on a laptop computer that had been smuggled in a few months before by a Dutch flight attendant who acted as a mule for the ANC - only identified as Antoinette in some records. Love would then encrypt the message and them process it out through the computer’s serial port to an acoustic coupler modem. This is where the encryption happened, the message data would then be converted to a sound, and the audio was recorded on a tape cassette recorder.

Once that process was done, Love would then dial Jenkin.

Jenkin would then play the received audio message back through a similar acoustic modem coupler that Love has. This modem was connected to his computer which would convert it back to digital data. The digital data would then be decrypted and that would result in the plain text message appearing on Jenkin’s computer. The second and critical part of the encryption, outside of the conversion to sound, was that both Love and Jenkin had each a floppy disk that used a form of a public-private key encryption algorithm that was used to encrypt or decrypt the the message after it was converted to or from sound.

This same process would be used to send messages to the ANC leadership in Zambia where another anti-apartheid activist used a network of foot couriers to get it to them undetected.

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