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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
In July 1990, five months after the South African government had unbanned the ANC, security police in Durban raided a local house. An informer had tipped them off about a group of externally trained ANC cadres giving military training to township militants. The way in which one breakthrough now led quickly to another gave police no reason to believe they were dealing with anything out of the ordinary - except perhaps that this training was taking place six months into what was supposed to be a new era of negotiation. But police were astonished at what they stumbled upon.
Their initial prize was Siphiwe Nyanda, the ANC's most successful regional military commander. Under the nom de guerre of Gebuza, Nyanda had headed the Transvaal urban machinery of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), since 1977. Based mainly in Swaziland, he had sometimes crossed into South Africa on operations. The last that South African intelligence, or most of his ANC comrades, had heard of him - in 1988 - was that he had been sent to the Soviet Union for an advanced military training course. They guessed the move was to prepare him for a senior post in the defence force of a putative post-apartheid South Africa.
The police haul of documentation indicated a worrying degree of ANC penetration of South African intelligence, the existence of an incipient national underground leadership of the ANC, as well as there having been regular three-way communication between Nelson Mandela in his cell at Pollsmoor Prison and the ANC leadership abroad, via this underground leadership; between the latter two, this communication had sometimes been daily. And it was clear that Nyanda and his associates had control over a large network of arms caches.
Another discovery followed: that the commander of this internal underground leadership was Mac Maharaj, a member of the ANC's national executive committee, one of Mandela's closer colleagues in Robben Island prison between 1964 and 1976, between 1978 and 1983 the head in exile of the ANC's internal reconstruction and development department and, since then, a leading member of the ANC's main operational organ, the Politico-Military Council. Maharaj, police found, had lived underground inside South Africa since July 1988 - for some 18 months before the ban on the ANC had been lifted. Before his disappearance from the ranks of ANC exiles in 1988, ANC members had heard Maharaj was desperately ill with a kidney complaint in the Soviet Union.
Police also discovered that Maharaj and Nyanda had been joined inside the country by Ronnie Kasrils in early 1990, a few weeks before the ANC's unbanning. Kasrils, also a member of the ANC national executive, had headed ANC military intelligence between 1983 and 1988 and, after that, had served as secretary of the ANC's internal political committee. Shortly before his disappearance from the ranks of exiles, ANC colleagues heard he had been seriously injured in a Jeep accident in Vietnam.
Moreover, police investigations revealed that, after the unbanning of the ANC on February 2 1990, Nyanda had remained in place underground inside the country, while Maharaj and Kasrils had, in order to preserve the security of their project, clandestinely left the country, returning to it openly by a circuitous route.
In July 1990, in the midst of delicate opening moments in the new era of negotiations, security police arrested first Nyanda, then Maharaj, followed by a number of other key figures in the operation. Kasrils went underground again.
State security officials were seriously embarrassed at having failed for so long to detect the project, known as 'Operation Vul'indlela' (meaning 'Open the Road'). I shall be calling it by its shorter name, 'Operation Vula'. Nyanda, Maharaj and Kasrils, perhaps the South African security system's three most effective operational opponents, had long outwitted them. For its part, the De Klerk government was furious. It alleged the operation, particularly its persistence after the ANC's unbanning, indicated ANC bad faith in the talks about talks then under way. Moreover, the government charged that the fact that most of the key individuals involved in the project were members of the South African Communist Party indicated the source of this bad faith. Ill-informed journalists took up the cry that Operation Vula was an attempt by the Communist Party to undermine both moderates within the ANC and the talks process. The result was that the fragile fabric of contacts between the government and the recently unbanned ANC looked, momentarily, close to unravelling.
The government attended the next meeting with the ANC a few weeks later - in Pretoria in August - determined to use Operation Vula as a stick with which to beat concessions out of the ANC. In the event, this proved unnecessary. The ANC had itself decided before the Pretoria talks to offer a suspension of armed activity by its military wing. This concession, perhaps more than any other, saved the momentum towards negotiations.
A common view of Operation Vula is, one, that it was an episode which nearly unravelled the peace process of the early 1990s in South Africa and, two, was the most successful attempt by the ANC to construct a national internal underground leadership in the three decades after the disaster of 1963-4, when Nelson Mandela and almost the entire ANC leadership were jailed.
Operation Vula was both of these. But it also had another significance. Operation Vula was a fairly complete expression of the operational strategic crisis in which the ANC found itself after 1986. The clue to my claim lies in the response of many ANC leaders to the government's disclosures about Operation Vula in July 1990. Many ANC leaders were, privately, enraged. Their fury was not a response (not in the first instance at any rate) to the fact that the state had wound up an ANC project. Rather, they were enraged because they felt they had not known about Operation Vula at all. They, too, had believed that Maharaj was on a dialysis machine in the Soviet Union, Nyanda was in a Soviet military training camp and Kasrils was languishing in plaster of paris in a Vietnamese hospital bed.
Among those who had never been told about Operation Vula was Joe Modise, who was none other than the over-all commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the very man whose task it was to direct all ANC armed activity in South Africa. When the news of Vula broke in July 1990, Modise was, according to one of my interviewees, a senior operative in Vula, 'the moer in' - euphemistically translated as 'fucking angry'.
The exclusion of key ANC and MK leaders from the secret that was Operation Vula lay not merely in considerations of security. It lay in a long and bitter history of failures, frustrations and rivalries in ANC operational affairs and strategy. It is to this history that I now turn, and I will end my review with a description of when and how the decision to launch Operation Vula was taken.