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Gesturing Towards “Anti-Colonial Hacking” and its Infrastructure image
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In the 1980s, freedom fighters and hackers from South Africa built an autonomous encrypted communication network that allowed activists infiltrated on the ground to communicate with the senior leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) based in Lusaka, Zambia via London. The encrypted communication network was set up as part of Operation Vula to attempt to launch a people's war and ultimately liberate a people's from apartheid. This article speaks to the history of technology in its attempts to further document and elucidate the encrypted communication network. To accomplish this, it draws both on previously available sources and also personal accounts obtained through interviews with some of the core individuals involved in the network's functioning. It also aims at expanding our understanding of highly intentional, politically-motivated practices of hacking, and the socio-technical infrastructures needed for such practices to exist.

Anti-colonial hacking, Phreaking, Cryptography, Anti-Apartheid, South Africa, Infrastructure.

By Sophie Toupin



It is October 1989. Janet Love, a commander in the militant anti-apartheid organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK),[ii] has infiltrated an office in Johannesburg and now sits anonymously, holding a small tape player next to a land-line phone. Earlier in the morning she had typed a message on a laptop computer bearing an encrypted floppy disk smuggled in a few months prior by a Dutch flight attendant named Antoinette, who doubled as an anti-apartheid operative. Completing the message, she enciphered it before passing it out through the computer’s serial port to an acoustic coupler modem. The digital data was thus converted to sound, which she captured on a small cassette tape recorder—the same device she now holds up to the telephone receiver. On the other end, in London, the phone is connected to a special answering machine configured by freedom fighter and hacker Tim Jenkin with the express purpose of receiving just such a message from South Africa. Working on his computer, Jenkin plays the audio message back through an acoustic modem similar to the one used by Love, converting its analog signal back to digital—rendering it back into data that he can decipher using a floppy disk [iii] paired to the one used by Love. At the end of this process, a simple string of plaintext appears on Jenkin’s computer screen. The message reads: “[…] We’re awaiting a travel document for her. She’s ready to leave at any moment. […] Amandla!”[iv] Reading the message, Jenkin quickly intuits that it needs to be passed on to Lusaka, Zambia, where it can be seen by the senior leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).[v] Jenkins repeats the encryption process and forwards the message along to Lusaka, where a Dutch anti-apartheid activist named Lucia receives the enciphered messages, deciphers it once more and prints it out to hard copy. A courier picks it up and it is on its way to the senior ANC members.

This introductory story describes the typical functioning of the autonomous encrypted communication network (what I will call AENC from here on out), a communication system rooted in hacker practice and relied on by the ANC anti-apartheid leadership during the final years of the South African liberation struggle. It is the story of a group of anti-apartheid activists that included freedom fighter and hacker Tim Jenkin. Exiled in London during the 1980s, he crafted the AENC for use in Operation Vula, one of the ANC’s final efforts to incite the South African population against the apartheid regime. The network enabled operatives on the ground in South Africa to maintain communications channels, via London, with the exiled African National Congress (ANC) leadership in Zambia. This communication network was born at a time when personal computing was just coming to prominence, when cryptography was still classified by many countries as a weapon (Levy, 2002), and when countries such as the United States were boycotting the sale of computers to South Africa—fearing the technology’s capacity to support apartheid by providing automation capabilities[vi] (Edwards and Hecht, 2010; NARMIC/American Friends Service Committee, 1982).

Operation Vula was launched in 1986 following decades of struggle that had failed to dismantle the oppressive white supremacist regime in place in South Africa since 1948 (Henderson, 1997; Motumi, 1994; Williams, 2000). The operation aimed to end the apartheid regime by covertly implanting ANC senior leadership into the country, where they would attempt to gather support and ultimately foster a people’s war against the state.[vii] Vula—short for Vulindlela, meaning Open the Road or the Path in Zulu (Henderson, 1997)—was envisaged at a time when liberation from apartheid seemed beyond reach. Operatives of the ANC and MK (an affiliated military wing) were routinely arrested, forced into exile, tortured and/or killed.

Nevertheless, the ANC Technical Committee’s[viii] experimentation with phone phreaking[ix] techniques and automated encryption seemed to offer promising forms of support to the cause, and the techniques were deemed worthy to be tried out and integrated with Operation Vula. Such adoption would be easier said than done, however: At a time when the internet did not yet exist, the AECN had to use heterogeneous forms of technologies and communication devices to adjust to realities on the ground—depending not only on technologies, but also networks of individuals and principles of use.

This article will begin with some background on the struggles in South Africa (Holland, 1989) at that time, contextualising the reasons why an AECN was seen as desirable in the first place. It is important to understand that the ANC already had a history of setting up different forms of communication systems, not only for strategic communication across borders, but also to share and distribute information more generally. These systems included radio broadcasts, newspapers, leaflet-bombs and others, and their use was intended to inform, to trigger activism and to inspire hope in South Africans who were experiencing oppression on a day-to-day basis. The appeal of a cryptographic network becomes further apparent when one considers the distance separating anti-apartheid activists, the exiled status of the ANC leadership, the high levels of counter-intelligence infiltration within the movement, and the burdensome nature of hand-written cryptography. Not to mention the apartheid regime’s routine surveillance of phone calls, postal mails, leaflets and radio broadcasts both inside and outside South Africa. Phone phreaking, programming and cryptographic tools seemed ripe for use in advancing the political aims of Operation Vula.

The article will proceed with a discussion of four aspects of the AECN’s infrastructure, each of which helps to illustrate the ways a politically-inclined hacking practice manifested in an anti-colonial context. I am drawing on the notion that “infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space” (Larkin, 2013).  Moreover, my use of the term “infrastructure” is not solely limited to material or technological components, but also socio-technological aspects.  In this way, I hope to highlight not only the materiality of this communication practice, but also its reliance on human agency, technological affordances, ethical principles of autonomy and solidarity, and more (Bowker and Star, 2000; Parks and Starosielski, 2015).

The history of phone phreaking, hacking and cryptography has had until now strong Western and American groundings (Coleman, 2014a; Lapsley, 2013; Levy, 2002). While acknowledging the importance of these histories to the hacker and crypto movements today, I will nonetheless argue that the AECN is an example that enriches the history of phone phreaking, hacking and cryptography. Not only does it elucidate the use of these practices in an anti-colonial struggle, but it also shows the steps that were necessary to configure both technologies and social realities for use in a specific context and underground situation.

I see this case study as being inscribed in a broader continuum of politically-inclined hacking practice. Its unique configurations were informed by particular socio and political conditions. The specificity of the AECN’s particular configuration brings visibility to a field (hacking) that has long been dominated by certain forms and understandings differently situated on the political spectrum and extremely reliant on the particularities of its Western expression (Coleman 2012, 2014a; Coleman and Golub, 2008; Turner, 2006). The set of values that such a narrow construction projects onto and about Africa is one that needs redress. The continent of Africa is a site of constant resistance to past and present pillaging by the West (Du Bois, 1965; Rodney, 2012) and against (neo)colonial narratives that have legitimised its exploitation (Bowker and Star, 2000; Butler, 2015; Eckstein and Schwarz, 2014). It is my hope that gesturing towards hacking in an anti-colonial context can shed light on these (in)visible imbalances and also elucidate the contributions that hacker practice and research has afforded to the continent and its people.

Data and methodology

To date, few scholars have written about the ACN’s encrypted communication network. Most articles published on the subject have appeared in intelligence or counter intelligence journals, and have either focused on analysing military and political aspects of Operation Vula (Henderson, 1997; Motumi, 1994; Williams, 2000) or been personal accounts or biographies written by those involved in the project itself (Braam, 1992; Jenkin, 1995; Maharaj, 2010; O’Malley, 2007; Press, 1995). A notable exception is Garrett and Edwards’ 2007 article “Revolutionary Secrets: Technology’s Role in the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement.” Writing from a social movement scholarship perspective, the authors highlight the ways Operation Vula instrumentalised Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) towards social change. However, the article does not link the AECN to contemporary or historical practices of phone phreaking or hacking. Therefore, my article enriches Garrett and Edwards’ scholarly contribution by expanding on the infrastructural aspects of this anti-colonial communication system and considering it in relation to hacker histories and practices.

The bulk of this research rests on primary and secondary materials such as academic articles, biographies, personal accounts, ANC archives and two documentary films: The Vula Connection (Edmunds, 2014) and Escape from Pretoria (North, 2013). It also depends on the O’Malley Archive, an online database hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which has made some of the messages exchanged through the encrypted communication network public. To corroborate and enrich these primary and secondary materials, I have also conducted interviews that bring to the fore the voices of those instrumental in creating, operating and using the AECN. I interviewed Tim Jenkin, who developed the encrypted communication system with Ronnie Press, and supplemented this interchange with additional communication via email.[x] I also interviewed Janet Love, an Operation Vula and MK cadre who used the AECN while underground in South Africa. Finally, Lucia Raadschelders, a Dutch national who received and sent encrypted messages for the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia, was interviewed via email. [xi]


While the ANC historically adopted a policy of non-violence, in the 1960s its strategy changed on the heels of two key events: South African police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful activists, killing 69 in an event that came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, and the government officially banned the ANC from operation.[xii] The organisation responded by creating an independent military wing: Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). As violence heightened in the ensuing years, many ANC cadres and leaders fled South Africa. They did not, however, retire from the country completely: Well-trained operatives were deployed on the ground to make the ANC and its cause visible. One of these operatives was a young, white, tech-savvy South African named Tim Jenkin. In a 1987 account, Jenkin described the events that led to his involvement with ANC. It was a radical, intellectually-involved transformation from a member of a white South African community flush with both privilege and racism, to a clandestine ANC operative active in Cape Town. Arrested in 1978 after two years of activity, Jenkin was tried as a terrorist and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was found guilty of “bombing”—but explosives were not his weapon of choice. As per the instruction of the ANC technical committee, he became proficient in what South African activists called “bucket bombs” or “leaflet bombing”: The mass distribution of leaflets designed to wake up South Africans to the ANC cause.[xiii] Jenkin was placed in a Pretoria prison intended specifically for white political prisoners. After only a year-and-a-half, he managed an escape alongside fellow activists Alex Moumbaris and Stephen Lee using a set of wooden keys ingeniously tooled by Jenkin in the prison’s workshop (Jenkin, 1987).[xiv] Upon finding refuge in London, in the early 1980s, Jenkin became a trainer for the ANC’s underground work and covert operations. He also involved himself in the ANC’s Technical Committee alongside Ronnie Press, an exiled South African chemistry professor. It was at this time the pair began experimenting with programming, cryptography and phone phreaking techniques on some of the first affordable computers available in Britain.

Until the beginning of the 1980s, the ANC had made do without a so-called “sophisticated technological” communication network. Instead, it used couriers to transport instructions, banned literature and pamphlets in and out of the country (Suttner, 2007) or used Radio Freedom[xv] (Davis, 2009; Lekgoathi, 2010) to convey messages and revolution narratives. The ANC sometimes relied on plain old hand-written cryptography, but such communication was so demanding time-wise that very few underground operatives used it on a regular basis. The system developed by Press and Jenkin improved on all accounts: Allowing secure, targeted messages to be transported at a distance.

How did the system work?

Before being sent to South Africa, top level cadres were trained by Tim Jenkin in London and/or Lusaka. These cadres then trained others in key operations related to the communication system. The laptop computers, encryption programmes, essential equipment and floppy disks were covertly delivered into the country by anti-apartheid activist Antoinette, a Dutch flight attendant who regularly flew from Amsterdam to Johannesburg.

To send a message from South Africa, the user would type a message on her laptop computer, encipher it and then pass it out through the computer’s serial port to an acoustic coupler modem (see Infographic). This converted the digital data to sound, whereupon the audio stream could be captured on a small cassette tape recorder. The user would then take the recorder to a public telephone or find a telephone in a random, relatively anonymous office and dial Tim Jenkin’s phone number in London, which had a special answering machine attached to it to receive the messages. If Jenkin was travelling, instructions would be given to dial Ronnie Press’ backup number, also in London. Jenkin and Press’ flats were connected by a private electronic Bulletin Board System (BBS), with a backup radio link. The recording on the tape recorder (which was described by Janet Love as a “humming buzz sound”[xvi]) was played through a small speaker into the telephone mouthpiece. The audio messages were stored on the London ‘receive’ answering machine. Jenkin (or Press) would then reverse the process, playing the received audio messages back through a similar acoustic modem attached to their computers, thus converting it back to a digital file which would be deciphered using a matching floppy disk. At this point the deciphered message appeared as plaintext on the computer screen, and could be printed for archiving, stored with another encryption programme or forwarded along. The London operators would analyse each message to determine which items were to be passed on to Lusaka, which items were for other destinations, and which ones could be dealt with by ANC operatives based in London.

When messages needed to be sent to South Africa from London, the operative who the messages were for would be paged by telephone and given a code indicating the number of messages they would be receiving. They would then go to a public telephone and dial a different number in London, connected to a ‘send’ answering machine. The messages to be received were played as outgoing messages by the answering machine and recorded by the operative onto the same small cassette tape recorder by placing a special microphone on the earpiece of the phone. The recorded messages would then be taken home, where they could be played back into the laptop via the acoustic modem and deciphered as described above.

Initially, the arrangement in Lusaka worked in much the same way—only without the need for anonymous or public telephones. A Dutch operative named Lucia would receive enciphered messages, decipher them, print them out at her office and courier them to ANC president Olivier Tambo and other senior members involved with Operation Vula. Outgoing messages from Zambia were likewise left on London’s ‘receive’ answering machine. Later, the establishment of a BBS in London allowed users to dial into a dedicated computer system used for both depositing and receiving messages.

The AECN was fully operational from July 1988. On the South African end, around ten top-level cadres involved in Operation Vula used the network directly, while other operatives performed more minor roles, such as preparing safe houses or relaying messages over public telephones. Other non-encrypted communication links facilitated contact with the Netherlands, Canada, Zimbabwe and other locations in the UK. When the AECN was accidentally[xvii] discovered in July 1990 by the South African Police, Jenkin quickly changed the system’s encryption keys—a move that enabled continued operations for almost another whole year. When the arrested Operation Vula cadres got amnesty in June 1991 and negotiations with the South Africa government were at an advanced stage, the AECN slowly wound down. Operation Vula had largely ceased and secret communication was not seen as a priority.

Infographic: Ariel Acevedo and Sophie Toupin. CC BY-NC-SA. Simplified infographic of how the encrypted communication system worked.

Infographic: Ariel Acevedo and Sophie Toupin. CC BY-NC-SA. Simplified infographic of how the encrypted communication system worked.

The positionality of hacking

In the 1970s and 1980s, the terms “hacking” and “hacker” were little known beyond a very specific set of circles. However, this does not mean that they cannot be useful to apply to certain historical practices with the benefit of hindsight. Hacking can be loosely defined as a practice that involves programming and/or tinkering with technology. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (2014b) defines a hacker “as a technologist with a penchant for computing” and a hack as “a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means” (p. 1). While the aforementioned definition fits well with the case study at hand, it is also important to recognise that the concept of hacking may also go beyond this understanding (Bardzell et al., 2016).

At the time of the ANC Technical Committee, Jenkin and Press did not identify as hackers. Nevertheless, their tinkering depended upon their ability to repurpose technologies through non-obvious means. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when I asked Jenkin if he considers himself a hacker today, he responded in the affirmative:

Yes, I do identify as a hacker. But a good one! (Pers. comm., Jenkin, 18 February 2015)

Other interviewees had another take on the matter. Lucia Raadschelders said:

I don’t think the term existed during the Vula years. As far as I am aware, our communication system was and is perceived as [simply] a very sophisticated email system. (Raadschelders interview, 9 June 2015)

Interestingly, while Jenkin did not remember people around him talking about hacking, he did remember discussions about phone phreaking.

During the 1980’s we tried various ways to make free and anonymous phone calls using “phone phreaking” techniques. We did this by calling emergency services using phone tone pads and dialing special numbers. It actually worked quite well! (Pers. comm., Jenkin, 18 November 2015)

In Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley connects the practices of phone phreaking and hacking, writing: “The kind of people who would be interested in hacking telephones would be just as interested […] in hacking computers” (2013: 306).

Below, I will examine the encrypted communication system using an infrastructure framework. Studying infrastructure has been done by numerous disciplines from science and technology studies (Bowker and Star, 2000; Edwards, 1997, 2003; Edwards et al., 2009; Hughes, 1987, 1993; Latour, 1993; Start, 1999; Star and Ruhleder, 1994) anthropology (Larkin, 2013, 2008), African Studies (Mbembe, 2001) and more recently in media and communication (Parks and Starosielski, 2015; Starosielski, 2015) studies. When referring to infrastructure, I understand its ontology “in the fact that they are things and also the relation between things” (Larkin, 2013: 329). With this duality, infrastructure “cannot be theorised in terms of object alone” (Ibid.) and are thus distinct from technologies as they are “object that create the grounds on which other object operate, and when they do so they operate as systems” (Ibid.). By looking at the AENC from the perspective of infrastructure, I hope to make visible not only the materiality of this encrypted communication system (Star, 1999), but also point to the affordances of the technologies involved, and the social processes needed for it to function. Moreover, I follow Carse (2012) and Larkin (2013) in their understanding that “visibility is situated and what is background for one is a daily object of concern for another” (Larkin, 2013: 336).

An infrastructure framework allow to go beyond the technology itself and rather emphasised the system that sustained it. Using this framework, it will become clear that ANC’s encrypted communication system demonstrates four distinctive infrastructural components: (1) a reliance on technological appropriation and reconfiguration, (2) a demand for the autonomy of all elements, (3) an establishment of a culture of mutual learning and education, and (4) a capacity to draw upon broader social processes of solidarity. Ultimately, considering the communication network from this encompassing infrastructural perspective helps us to conceive the unique demands placed on a politically-motivated hacking practice contextualised by the pressures of an active anti-colonial struggle. In addition to its material components, the AENC could not have existed without a robust network of individuals: tech-savvy people; financial backers who believed in the ANC struggle; individuals capable of using particular privileges attached to their positions for the cause (as demonstrated by Antoinette’s ability to utilise her job as a flight attendant); activists from South Africa, the Netherlands, and other countries willing to dedicate part of their lives to the fight against apartheid (Jenkin, Press, Love and Raadschelders are all examples); and supporters from a variety of friendly countries, particularly in Africa, willing to help the ANC in its decolonisation struggle. Each of these elements contributed vitally to the infrastructure of the AECN.

Infrastructure of (re)appropriated technology

The first characteristic I want to highlight about the encrypted communication network is its re-appropriation of a particular form of technological infrastructure specifically for the purpose of facilitating liberation. But before going further, the term liberation ought to be unpacked. In this article, liberation is used with an understanding and recognition of its historical ambiguities: anti- and post-colonial liberation movements have at times unfolded into a configuration that closely resemble military regimes. The term can also hide the fact that very real power struggles are engaged in the name of freedom—and that sometimes these struggles involve certain abusive practices. Nevertheless, the use of the term locates the motivations or intentions of such struggle in the desire for social justice.

This intention to create or configure technologies specifically for the purposes of liberation had an indelible impact on the form of the entire AENC. To demonstrate the significance of this characteristic, I will compare and contrast the ANC’s technological infrastructure with those in use at the time by both the South African apartheid regime and the phone phreaker and cypherpunk communities.

For years, apartheid South Africa had been involved in techno-political prestige projects designed to both differentiate the country from other African nations and demonstrate its modernity. The regime set up a passbook system (Bowker and Star, 2000)[xviii] intended, according to Edwards and Hecht (2010: 625), “to stabilise a specifically racial personal identity around a document coupled to a biometrically indexed database.”[xix] The government also applied cheap black labour to the country’s work in its numerous mines, extracting precious materials like gold and uranium. The latter mineral positioned South Africa as one of the strong nuclear powers at a global stage. These techno-political projects were presented as examples of “industrial development”—a rhetoric that masked the underlying features of racial oppression (Hecht, 2012). All the while, the regime was also at work using computer systems to automate the processes of apartheid (NARMIC/American Friends Service Committee, 1982). While the underlying technologies used by those involved in Operation Vula and those enacting apartheid may have been somewhat similar (such as their advanced use of computers), the instrumentalised end towards which they were applied could not have been more different.

Other technologists of the era were more relatable, however. Lapsley defines a phone phreaker as “a person who is obsessively interested in learning about, exploring, or playing with the telephone network” (2013: ix). This usually took the form of college-aged white males interested in finding hidden nooks in the American phone system—frequently for the apolitical sake of edification itself, and only sometimes channeled through the political implications of securing a free phone call. While Jenkin was equally obsessed by the phone system, his purpose for exploration was always linked to its use value for activism: To figure out a way to use the current and available communication infrastructure without the apartheid regime’s knowledge, and to find free and anonymous ways for ANC leaders in different countries to communicate.

While the cypherpunks strong interest in cryptography have similarities with the designers of the AENC, they have as well some differences.[xx] Like many of today’s crypto activists, the historical cypherpunks aimed to develop cryptographic tools that are accessible and useable throughout the civilian sphere—whether for private economic transactions or for private and anonymous communications. While the cryptographic methods used in the AENC were derived from a design for a “one time pad” found in the public domain, the system itself was meant to be used by only a select few. It was not intended to be used by all South Africans fighting the apartheid regime; it was a very secretive project—even within the ANC leadership only a select pocket of people knew of it. One of the main reasons to keep the communication network secret was to avoid infiltration, a plight of past ANC and MK work (Davis, 2009). It was also restricted to a few developers, operatives and users because the form of symmetric cryptography used by the system required that both the sender and the receiver possess the same encrypted floppy disk. The more people possessing the key, the more likely the entire system could be compromised.[xxi]

Today, the public use of cryptography is often linked to beliefs regarding the sanctity of privacy and freedom of expression. The narrative suggests that access to such technology is not only part of constitutional rights (particularly in the USA), but is also necessary to protect the right to privacy as enshrined by Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For Operation Vula, however, the use of cryptography had a narrower and directly instrumental intent. Hacking and phone phreaking techniques enabled the building of an underground communication infrastructure that not only established a strong international communication network between key figures, but also limited the apartheid regime’s ability to surveil. Whereas for many hacking projects securing access to a technology is an end in itself, Operation Vula provides an example of a more intentionalist hacking project, aimed at a politically narrow and highly context-dependent outcome. Evading surveillance was not enough. The context of apartheid was such that these technologies needed to extend beyond merely technological outcomes—they needed to join with an assemblage of other technologies that would at times become technologies of/for care.[xxii] It was not only about safeguarding communications—it was about enabling the exchange of strategic and tactical information crucial to the ultimate aim of liberating a people from oppression.

Infrastructure of autonomy

I use the term “autonomy” to describe the network used in Operation Vula, I do not mean to suggest that the technology works by itself (as with “autonomous” robotics, Google cars, etc.), but rather that the technological aspects of the infrastructure are intended to somewhat exist outside a dominant oppressive system—oriented towards a different set of goals, practices and values. From this understanding, I believe that such autonomous infrastructures possess the power to disrupt entrenched systems, and in certain contexts even facilitate the destructuration and dismantling of these systems. In the case of the ACN’s encrypted communication network, the infrastructure was built up precisely with the intent of facilitating the destructuration of the apartheid regime. Moreover, understanding infrastructure in this way is important, because it acknowledges that the intended use of a given technology defines it just as much as its possible use.

While Jenkin and Press drew upon existing technologies (such as phones, tape recorders, computers, the international telecom system, etc.) and methodologies in constructing the AECN, the significance of the resulting system cannot be reduced to the functioning of these components alone, nor to the hacker expertise required for its assembly (Noble, 1983; Söderberg, 2008). Instead, the system can only be properly ontologised by reference to the autonomy it was designed to facilitate. In other words, the infrastructure of the AECN cannot be identified with the technology itself; it can only be understood in reference to the politically-oriented goals and intentions that underwrote the technology’s assembly.

The infrastructure of the AECN is thus defined by both the autonomy it sought to produce, and also the forms of autonomy necessary for its own production. From the start Tim Jenkin made it clear that the initiative was not intended for commercial use—it was about facilitating an emancipatory operation. The AECN was free from the need to generate profit thanks to the ANC’s cultivation of a network of sympathetic funders. Resources were in place that enabled the travel and equipment needed to establish the network.

The communication system gained further autonomy by ignoring the possibility of either licensing a proprietary encryption algorithm or using a commercial service to perform third-party encryption. Instead, it relied on an automated one-time pad designed by Jenkin. While strong cryptographic algorithms that largely eliminated the need for one-time pads already existed at the time,[xxiii] few outside of a very confined crowd were aware of their existence (Levy, 2002). Furthermore, the Diffie-Hellman (DH) and RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adelman) algorithms were owned by MIT and Stanford, respectively—institutions that patented the discoveries of their mathematicians and set up companies to sell products based on them with the intention to profit. These algorithms only fell into the public domain in 1997, in the case of DH, and 2000, in the case of RSA (Omura, n.d.). The concept of a one-time pad, on the other hand, had been patented in 1919 and was already in the public domain when the AECN was being assembled.

Unlike the academics and mathematicians who designed encryption protocols like DH and RSA, Tim Jenkin and his compatriots were not motivated by scientific curiosity, profit or came from a hobbyist passion. Their goal was specific: They were working around the clock to conceive of a technological assemblage that could facilitate the ANC cause. They sought to use socio-technical means to enhance the agency of those fighting against the brutal conditions faced by South Africans living under apartheid or exiled because of it. The creation of this encrypted communication network was thus inscribed by a distinct set of values: To support the liberation a people from a white supremacist state. When the apartheid regime collapsed and was replaced by a democratically-elected state, the autonomous encrypted communication network stopped being used.

In Garrett and Edwards’ (2008) consideration of the AECN, they question why Jenkin opted to reinvent the wheel with the encryption aspect of the communication network. They write:

In the mid-1980s, when Jenkin and Press began to contemplate using computers, computer-based encryption was already a well-established field with a robust research literature, national standards, and commercial products. For example, by 1977 the United States had established a national Data Encryption Standard (“Data Encryption Standard Fact Sheet”, 1996), and products based on this standard were commercially available (“IBMs Cryptographic Products”, 1978).

I would venture an answer to their question by suggesting that cultivating a pervasive sense or feeling of autonomy at all levels of the project was crucial to the communication network’s ultimate functioning. Furthermore, Levy (2002) relays that even as the DES was in the process of becoming “the no-brainer choice for private industry” (p. 38), Hellman, one of the two cryptographers behind the DH algorithm, “knew that his old and trusted colleagues at IBM had been cooking up a system designed to satisfy the government’s criteria […] and learned that the National Security Agency apparently had a hand in its development” (p. 39). In other words, there was strong suspicion that the DES had a backdoor. When interviewed about this aspect, Jenkin said:

They wonder why we reinvented the wheel. They did not get it. Even at that time, we knew that backdoors could exist, but at that time we did not fully understand what it meant. We were just experimenting and we didn’t have the knowledge that we have today. But the suspicion was there. The commercial stuff did not answer our needs so we needed to build our own. (Tim interview, 19 June 2015)

All in all, the goal of securing autonomy at the technical level of infrastructure is about the possibility of controlling, to some extent, the means of production. It is about shaping the ways technologies are designed, used, and capable of remaining outside of a state or corporate apparatus’ ability to control or surveil it.

Infrastructure of learning

I use the term “infrastructure of learning” in reference to the processes whereby the humans involved in the AECN were required to actively approach new information and knowledge to keep the network running. This does not only involve the moments where programmers, users, and operatives of the communication network had to develop skills related to the workings of phones system and computers, but also when they were required to confront challenges related to the nature of doing underground work in a white supremacist state; learn how to circumvent inconsistent or non-existent access to key components of broader infrastructure (electricity, phone, etc.); and develop a system of mutual teaching and learning to share knowledge gained from experimentation with the communication system. Essentially, they had to rely on an infrastructure composed of people, (un)available technologies, and social solidarities to make the communication system possible.

As computers and cryptography were relatively new technologies in the 1980s, Jenkin and Press had to adopt DIY techniques to become proficient in their workings. They read articles and books about phone phreaking, cryptography and programming, and relied on explorations of BBS communities to perform various functions and further develop their skills.

Training was paramount for the encrypted communication network to function properly: Many of the users and operatives had never even used a computer before. In addition to his work conceiving the system itself, this task also fell to Jenkin.

As this was the 1980s very few people had much experience with computers. This made the training quite difficult for some as they had to learn the basics before they could even get to the encryption programmes. So the selection [of users] was not made on the basis of experience, but on the basis of need. Those comrades who were going to be on the ‘front line’ and who needed to communicate with the ANC leadership were the ones who were required to learn how to operate the comms equipment. (Tim interview, 19 June 2015)

Lucia, one of the main operatives in Lusaka, was among the trainees. When asked about what was involved, she said:

[I was trained] mainly how to use a laptop (first time ever for me), how to connect and use the modem, how and when to use the two encryption programmes, simple trouble shooting, how to use the answering machine, down and uploading of messages, what to be aware of. (Raadschelders interview, 9 June 2015)

Jenkin explained that he used the training to build a division of labour into the system, hoping that this would add a layer of security:

Some of those trained in the communications were only trained in certain aspects of it, such as taking the tape recorders to the public telephones to send and receive messages. These people did not learn or even know about the computer equipment and encryption programmes. (Tim interview, 19 June 2015)

Operating in a city like Lusaka, Zambia, electricity could not be taken for granted. Furthermore, the quality of the telephone lines and the phone service’s frequent downtime were both impediments to the autonomous encrypted communication system’s smooth functioning. Lucia Raadschelders worked as an operator in Lusaka from 1988 to 1991. In an interview, she highlighted these difficulties, and discussed the ingenuity required to counter the challenges:

There had been a fire in an electricity sub-station and I was without electricity during the day for almost a year. Again this meant going to somebody else’s house [to send and receive encrypted messages], but this was not sustainable. Tim and co. configured the IT system to run off a car battery and he came to install it. (Raadschelders interview, 9 June 2015)

In 1987, Janet Love was one of the first individuals installed on the ground in South Africa as part of Operation Vula. When interviewed, she discussed how much easier she found automated encryption compared to the hand-written cryptography that operatives had relied on previously. Hand-written cryptography required a different communication infrastructure, one which involved the hand delivery of letters. Often this involved the typically female couriers to transit between countries.

My role involved setting up infrastructure such as printing, distribution, dead letter boxes, and safe houses. At that stage, although I had had initial training in using the computer programme, it had not yet been rolled out, so in the very initial days I was based in South Africa we were still using non-electronic encryption, which was extremely laborious, but done nonetheless. When the computer programme was rolled out which would have been by the end of 1987, it was a welcome relief. (Love interview, 12 June 2015)

Nevertheless, the system was not perfect. One of the main challenges posed by the new communication infrastructure was the amount of time it took to send a message significantly quicker than the process of generating hand-written crypto, it could still take up to an hour to send a message. During this time the agent faced heightened risk of discovery. Janet Love recalled:

The main challenge was to send encrypted data using normal telecommunication facilities. […] Firstly it took a hell of a long time. […] There is a particular sound, I am very bad at mimicry, but there is a particular sound, that the transmission of this data makes when it is finally going through, it is a kind of high-pitched signal and to get to that point with the signal to actually go through, was a sort of an incredible relief because it actually took so long. And part of the problem there was one could not presume to use any phones so I had to set up the possibility to use phones in various offices. Some I was using with the knowledge of the office owners, [while with] others I had to find ways to get in without the knowledge of the owners. It was quite obtrusive: If you can just imagine somebody [sitting] at a phone with this equipment, trying to get the data to communicate into the phone, and often [it] not happening, and [then] finally having the data go through. That was a huge relief. (Love interview, 12 June 2015).

This infrastructure of learning related to the communication system joined an already-existing infrastructure of learning in place throughout the broader ANC liberation establishment, wherein ANC and MK recruits were sent to training camps outside South Africa to receive instruction in reading, writing and anti-colonial theory (Cherry, 2012).

The infrastructure of solidarity and the role of women

International solidarity was a crucial part of the broader struggle against apartheid, and it was no less important to the functioning of the AECN. Localised anti-apartheid chapters, such as the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement (Anti-Apartheidsbeweging Nederland, AABN), were key for their ability to recruit operatives. In 1986, the coordinator of AABN, Conny Braam, was approached by Mac Maharaj (one of the main leaders of Operation Vula) to assist with Operation Vula (Braam, 2004; O’Malley, 2007). She joined up and was ultimately responsible for recruiting Lucia and Antoinette, among others.

It is also crucial to highlight the role women played in the anti-apartheid struggle. In his introduction to post-colonial theory, R. J. C. Young asserts that, “Of all freedom struggles, the longest and the most recently realised, that is South Africa, saw the most active intervention by women” (2001: 366). As early as 1920, the ANC had created a women’s section, and by 1949 it had swelled into a full-blown ANC women’s league, which remained active until it was banned in the 1960s. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa saw many women involved in a variety of roles and tasks. While a few assumed positions of command in MK, the majority were involved in courier and communication-related work (Cherry, 2012; Cock, 1993; Suttner 2007, 2008), work that was paramount for any operations, but not often recognised as such.

In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon (1968) highlights that women involved in anti-colonial struggles were able to perform tasks that were often impossible for men to perform as they attracted less attention. Though both the main leaders of Operation Vula and those who crafted the communication system were men, many women came to operate and use the encrypted communication system and were thus crucial in its functioning.

Within Operation Vula there were more women [than in other operations], there is no question about that. Including people who were MK commanders and trainers of units in Operation Vula. So there were more women occupying various roles within the operation, including people who were not from South Africa—including people who actually did physical courier work including publication type material, money, etc. The gender composition in Operation Vula saw quite a number of women. It was less than 50%, but there were a number of women in various capacities (Love interview, 12 June 2015).

The crucial roles played by both women and international solidarity networks are just two examples of the way social systems functioned as crucial infrastructural components to the operation of the AECN. Highlighting these social forms of infrastructure is crucial to understanding the socio-technical characteristic of the encrypted communication system.


The encrypted communication network established that was set up as part of the ANC in its endeavour to end apartheid functions as an important example of the role hacking can play in an intentional political practice. By elucidating scenarios where phone phreaking, cryptography and hacking were utilised in an anti-colonial setting, this article seeks to expand understandings of the possible goals, aspirations and politics inherent to these practices. It also shows how the political functions of these practices cannot be understood as emerging solely from the technological aspects of such a communication network—instead, one must consider an expansive socio-technical infrastructure, composed of an assemblage of actors, technologies and conditions, among other elements.

The contribution of this article rests in two primary areas. First, it is at a historical and empirical level, and second at a theoretical and political level. This article speaks to the history of technology in its attempts to further document and elucidate the AECN. To accomplish this, it draws both on previously available sources and also personal accounts obtained through interviews with some of the core individuals involved in the network’s functioning. The second contribution is to expand our understanding of highly intentional, politically-motivated practices of hacking, and the socio-technical infrastructures needed for such practices to exist.

Finally, I am left with a question: Is the case study of the AECN suggestive of an entire category of hacker practice, one that could perhaps be labelled “anti-colonial hacking”? While I see this communication network as demonstrative of a distinctive, politically-inclined hacking practice melded with a complimentary infrastructure, at this point I can only gesture towards the possibility that this single example of what I call “anti-colonial hacking” could be supplemented by other, similar examples. Future work is needed to further such a framework, and more empirical research is needed to validate it.


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Sophie Toupin is a Phd student in Communication Studies at McGill University.


[i] This article is the outcome of a graduate seminar on Sabotage I took at McGill University during the winter of 2015. I am grateful to Professor Darin Barney for his generosity in advising me through the writing of this article. I am also grateful to Professor Gabriella Coleman who offered that I present my work to a reading group she is chairing: Bytes, Bits and Bots (BBB) and all the feedback received to improve the article. Finally, this article is indebted to Tim Jenkin, Janet Love and Lucia Raadschleders.
[ii] The Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK or Spear of the Nation), the African National Congress (ANC) independent military wing was formed in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the ban of the ANC. One of his co-founders was Nelson Mandela. MK’s action started with a sabotage campaign that targeted the apartheid economic infrastructure, such as pylons, communication and transport infrastructures or the infrastructure that represented oppression, such as pass offices and other governmental buildings.
[iii] The automated one-time resided on a floopy disk. In other words, the algorithm that enable encryption was on the floppy disk.
[iv] O’Malley, P (n.d.) October. Available at: (accessed on 6 November 2015).
[v] The ANC was formed in 1912. Initially called the South African Native National Congress it aimed for the removal of racial discrimination in parliament, public administration, schools and factories in South Africa. Despite the instauration of a formal policy of apartheid in 1948 by the National Party (NP), the ANC remained committed to Ghandi’s philosophy of non-violence through civil disobedience until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. At that time and through the creation of the MK, it decided to use a campaign of sabotage to force the Apartheid regime to negotiate the end of a white supremacist regime. The campaign of sabotage targeted the apartheid economic infrastructure. Nelson Mandela was the first democratically-elected black president under the ANC in 1994 after the fall of the apartheid regime. The ANC is still in power today.
[vi] In 1978, President Carter banned the sale of U.S. goods to the South African Military and Police, including computers, but in 1982 Reagan lifted the ban. Following public and congress pressure, Reagan had to reverse his decision. Having said that, it is important to understand that the CIA was funding and supporting the South African apartheid regime in their so-called anti-communist quest.
[vii] Lin Piao’s (1965) declaration “Long Live the Victory of People’s War” first proposed the concept of a People’s War, which was used by many subsequent guerrilla movements. Available at: (accessed on 6 November 2015).
[viii] Exiled in the UK, Ronnie Press was involved in the ANC Technical Committee (TC). The TC was to provide technical assistance for the anti-apartheid movement.
[ix] Lapsley (2013: ix) defines a phone phreaker as “a person who is obsessively interested in learning about, exploring, or playing with the telephone network.”
[x] Ronnie Press passed away in 2010.
[xi] In terms of shortcomings, I have not been able to communicate with some major figures who were at the heart of Operation Vula, such as Mac Maharaj, Siphiwe Nyanda and others.
[xii] On 21 March 1960, the South African police opened fire on unarmed black protesters who were marching to contest a law (the pass law) that made them second-class citizens, killing 69. Many of those killed were shot in the back as they were fleeing. In 1966, the United Nations recognised 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
[xiii] A “leaflet bomb” was a means to “broadcast” ANC material and news, such as the invasion of Angola by South Africa or to remind South Africans of the Sharpeville massacre. Leaflet-bombs succeeded in spreading information about events and news that were otherwise not available for ordinary South Africans.
[xiv] Within about a year, Jenkin made wooden keys of all the prison locks in the wood workshop. Through the assemblage of wooden pieces, they were able to escape from prison passing through ten locked doors. It is to be said that lock-picking workshops are a regular occurrence at hacker conferences.
[xv] Freedom radio or ANC radio broadcasted revolutionary narratives on to South Africans frequencies from other friendly African country (Tanzania, Zambia, etc.).
[xvi] Janet Love interview, 12 June 2015.
[xvii] The AECN was discovered when the South African police raided a safe house where ANC operatives were hiding. At the same time, the police discovered computers, encrypted floppy disks, tape recorders, and some of the printed deciphered communication. This is when the police realised the extent to which the ANC was using a sophisticated means of communication to exchange messages with Lusaka.
[xviii] To establish the automated passbook the apartheid regime attempted to track down and fingerprint every individual. The aim of the passbook was to control “native” movements.
[xix] In such a context of “techno apartheid” the black population was, however, able to forge or “hack” this system in forging the passbook.
[xx] The cypherpunk movement was born in the late 1980s. They were against the U.S. government who they saw as restricting their desire and interest for anonymity whether it be for financial transactions or private communications. At that time, cryptography was prohibited from being used in the civilian sphere, making it only available to governmental agencies and later to companies whose algorithms would have to be approved by the National Security Agency (NSA). As a result of this situation and an increased interest in cryptography, a crypto-war was started and was ultimately won by programmers, mathematicians, academics and amateur cryptographers who succeeded in making cryptography a non-weapon tool (Levy, 2002).
[xxi] The strength and innovation with the public key cryptography (a.k.a. asymmetric cryptography) is that it allowed one to have one’s public key public and one’s private key private. This would enable the widespread use of crypto.
[xxii] When reading through the O’Mailley archive, one is struck by the number of messages for and by family members of cadres on the ground, and the request for banned material, such as particular films or radio interviews. Underground operatives did use the communication system to obtain news from loved ones and that is why I call it technology of/for care.
[xxiii] These are the main algorithms for strong crypto that were designed in the 1970s and are still the main algorithm used for public key crypto.