Published on June 4th, 2020
Written by Sophie Toupin
During the South African liberation struggle, a group of scientists and techies formed a technical committee to assist the African National Congress (ANC) in its quest to fight against the apartheid regime in power since 1948. The technical committee, officially formed in the early 1960s, was inspired by the writings of Soviet, Irish, and British communist scientists who believed in the power of science and technology for the benefits of the people, as well as by the scientific and technological development in China and the USSR. The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 was a particular inspiration for South African anti-apartheid activists who were thinking about the ways in which communication infrastructure could support their struggle against injustice, oppression, and white supremacy (Figure 1). The existence of a technical committee in South Africa was to be short-lived, however, because after the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the others in the mid-60s on Robben Island, its members fled and took refuge in the UK.
Figure 1: Excerpt from an article published on Sputnik 1 by Dr. Ronnie Press in the New Age on October 17, 1957. Dr. Press, a member of the technical committee, was to be the lead developer, together with Tim Jenkin, of the communication infrastructure that allowed South Africans to communicate secretly and transnationally in the late 1980s. The article is publicly available at the Digital Innovation South Africa.
The externalized nature of the South African national liberation struggle and the persona non grata status of the exiled freedom fighters meant that they needed to design new ways to communicate secretly and across continents. Members of the technical committee started experimenting with technologies such as tape recorders, radio transmitters, telex, telematics (telephone+computers), laptop computers, encryption, and acoustic coupler modems, among others, to make their dream of rapid, secret, and transnational networked computer communication possible. At the center of their science and technology practice was the people, a term Alain Badiou1 reminds us has been widely used as a political category during liberation struggles. The signifier the people referred to the oppressed and the colonized everywhere who had been denied their freedom and now had an opportunity to identify as a people. In this context, science and technology for the people meant that it needed to support the rank and file in their fight against apartheid. They needed an easy way to use the hardware infrastructure coupled with appropriate training regarding using computers and encryption—the first time, for many of them.
Figure 2: Still image from the documentary The Vula Connection.2
Over almost a decade, from the early 1980s onwards, the technical committee developed an encrypted communication infrastructure,3 which was to be included in Operation Vula (Figure 2), one of the ANC’s final efforts against the apartheid regime. The infrastructure was to allow freedom fighters on the ground in South Africa to communicate with the senior leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) based in Lusaka, Zambia, via London, Great Britain (Figure 3). While the initial communication nexus was between Durban, London, and Lusaka, the communication infrastructure would later be operated from major cities in South Africa, namely, Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, as well as from Amsterdam; York, in Great Britain; TallCree First Nation, in Alberta, Canada; and Harare. It was also tested in Paris, but never operationalized.
Figure 3: Simplified infographic of how the encrypted communication infrastructure worked. By Ariel Acevedo and Sophie Toupin. CC BY-NC-SA.
The politics behind this initiative deserve attention, as they rest on the building of what Deborah Cowen calls fugitive infrastructures.4 This type of fugitive infrastructures has enabled the destabilizing actions that are essential components of any revolution, whether they took the form of maroon communities in the hills, the swamps, or the inlands of a country; the Underground Railroad and Telegraph to guide slaves to freedom; or a fugitive communication infrastructure that sought to support the fight against apartheid. It is through such forms of politics that freedom lies. And often only in hindsight can such efforts be understood, highlighted, and revealed.
The technical committee’s encrypted communication infrastructure was made out of not only technical hardware, but also the people supporting it who formed and acted as a fugitive infrastructure. Taking a position of understanding people as infrastructure5 in a fugitive context also aims to decenter or shift the focus away from the developers.6 The people who tested, operated, and hosted this infrastructure were as essential as the developers. The importance of making the people visible is doubly important as the majority assigned to these tasks were Black7 and white South African women in addition to Dutch and Canadian women. South African women especially were appointed to communication work because it was seen as more clerical and less dangerous, thereby simultaneously highlighting its feminization and devaluing it. However, without them, the networked infrastructure would not have worked.
This tricontinental fugitive infrastructure that allowed coordinated actions within a liberation movement spread across different geographies is a good example of what revolutionary communication means. What makes a communication practice “revolutionary” is not its unique and allegedly transformative technical characteristics but, instead, its insertion into a revolutionary context comprising committed actors deploying a multiplicity of techniques that include, but cannot be replaced by, the medium itself. This case provides a basis for rethinking claims about the allegedly revolutionary character of the internet and social media.
After two years (1988-1990) in operation, the communication infrastructure was discovered by the apartheid regime. A year later, as negotiations were happening, some of the technical committee’s members went back to South Africa after getting their amnesty claims accepted. They started working for the ANC, setting up computer networks throughout the country in the lead-up to the first democratic elections in 1994. After Nelson Mandela’s victory, the technical committee created and managed the websites of the ANC parliament and ministries in addition to setting up their email. In the early 2000s some of the technical committee members created their own company, called Umbezeni Communication, to design websites in South Africa.
Sophie Toupin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. Her current PhD research examines the relationship between communication technologies and revolutionary movements in the context of liberation struggles. She is one of the three co-editors for the book The Handbook of Peer Production (Wiley, forthcoming). Some of her publications can be found at: https://mcgill.academia.edu/SophieToupin
- Badiou, Alain. 2013. “Vingt-Quatre Notes Sur Les Usages Du Mot « Peuple ».” In Qu’est-ce qu’un Peuple ?, 8–17. Paris, France: La Fabrique.
- Edmunds, Marion. 2014. The Vula Connection. Johannesburg, SA: Sabido Production. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29vrvKsKXPI.
- Jenkin, Tim. 1995. “Talking To Vula: The Story of the Secret Underground Communications Network of Operation Vula.” The Heart of Hope. https://omalley.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv03445/04lv03996/05lv04001.htm.
- Cowen, Deborah. 2017. “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance.” Verso Books Blogs. January 25. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3067-infrastructures-of-empire-and-resistance.
- Simone, AbdouMalik. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16 (3): 407–29.
- Burrell, Jenna. 2012. Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- When I use the term “Black” I refer to the ways in which the Black Consciousness (BC) movement understood it: meaning that it includes blacks, coloured and Indian South Africans.