November 21, 2006

Meeting Mac Maharaj

Here is a story whose weirdness will be fully appreciated only by South Africans, SA historians, and others who really know the country.

In 2003-04 I spent thirteen months in South Africa researching the technopolitics of information infrastructure during and after apartheid. Among other things, I wanted to find out more about Operation Vula, the last military movement of Umkhonto we Sizwe in the dying days of apartheid. This mattered to me because the MK operatives kluged together an encryption system using portable PCs, telephone modems, and tape recorders. Tim Jenkin, who designed the system, claimed that it was crucial to Vula's unprecedented success, because it allowed MK operatives to communicate with the leadership in exile while working inside SA, something never before possible.
Kelly Garrett and I have an article about this coming out in the next issue of Social Science Computer Review.

The commander of Operation Vula was Mac Maharaj, a major figure in the SA freedom struggle. Maharaj was an ANC leader who spent 12 years imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. After his release in 1976, he escaped to Zambia and became a principal leader of the ANC in exile. He led Operation Vula from 1987-1991. After the first democratic elections, he served as Minister of Transport from 1994-1999. Since he had also been the first user of the Vula encryption system, I really wanted to talk to him.

But a month or two after I arrived in SA, Mac became embroiled in a huge scandal involving bribes allegedly paid to Deputy President Jacob Zuma by a French arms manufacturer and laundered by Zuma's financier Schabir Shaik (also a friend of Maharaj). These guys were Mac's buddies, especially Shaik, and he spoke up for them, in part by accusing Bulelani Ngcuka -- head of the Scorpions, SA's elite national anti-corruption unit -- of having been a spy for the apartheid regime. (Maharaj was wrong, though he probably thought he was telling the truth. He had a document that seemed to point to Ngcuka, but the real apartheid spy announced herself a couple of months later, clearing Ngcuka beyond doubt.) Ncguka retaliated by adding Maharaj to his list of corruption investigations. Shaik was convicted and went to prison for 15 years. Zuma got off, the court having apparently concluded that while Shaik was guilty of delivering the bribes to Zuma, Zuma was not guilty of receiving them. (Zuma was soon back in court, narrowly escaping conviction on a rape charge last summer. During that trial he said he'd protected himself from HIV by taking a shower.) Zuma has a pretty good shot at becoming the next president of SA.

As for Mac Maharaj, he was eventually cleared of corruption charges, but his reputation lay in ruins, with a lot of lingering suspicions.

This scandal peaked during 2003-04, while we were in SA, so Mac was avoiding journalists and keeping a pretty low profile. Nonetheless, I managed to find somebody who knew him. She asked him if I could get in touch, gave me his address, and told me he had asked me to email him. In December of 2003 I did that, describing my project and requesting an interview (and promised not to ask him about current events, or publish anything without his permission). No response. Two months went by; I sent the same email again, pretending that maybe he'd never received it. Still no answer. As I was getting ready to leave SA in June 2004, I sent one last email. And got no answer, again. I was more than a little depressed by this, since Maharaj was a key to the story. Given his public disgrace, I doubted he was too busy to respond, though I could also understand why he might not want to talk.

Now, fast forward to early November 2006.

Gabrielle and I went to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Society for Social Studies of Science meetings. Hungry and tired, we went looking for dinner. Gabrielle was in a lousy mood because her bag hadn't arrived and the airline didn't seem to care about tracking it down. Then, passing by a Chapters bookstore downtown, we came across a sign, handwritten in chalk on a sandwich board:

"Mac Maharaj speaks about Nelson Mandela. Here, tonight, at 7 PM."

It was 6:15.

We just stood there for a minute, stunned. Then we read the rest of the sign. Maharaj was in Vancouver to promote a new "authorized biography" of Nelson Mandela, on which he was listed simply as an "editorial consultant." The sign billed Mac as "Mandela's closest living colleague from Robben Island Prison." Nothing about his own role in the struggle. Nothing about being tortured in prison. Nothing about Vula. Nothing about being Minister of Transport. Basically nothing at all about Mac -- only about Mandela.

What should I do? Listen to him hawk his book, then walk up and try to nail him for an interview, on the spot? Not likely to succeed. Introduce myself before the talk? And say what, exactly -- "I tried to interview you two years ago and you never answered my email"? A bit lame, not to mention petty. Try to set up an interview later, in Vancouver, with no tape recorder, no notes, not even a notebook? Go get dinner and pretend this never happened?

We went into the bookstore to ponder all this. While we were waiting, a guy came on the loudspeaker and in a bored voice intoned -- I kid you not, read this sentence carefully -- "Tonight at 7, hear Mac Maharaj speak about Nelson Mandela and the struggle for freedom in South America." (At least he got the hemisphere

Finally I decided to go upstairs and at least scope out the scene. They had partitioned off an area with a podium and about 50 chairs. A few people were drifting in, more than I expected but it clearly was not going to be a full house. A bright-faced young woman saw us lingering around the entry and offered her help. I said I'd like to leave Mr. Maharaj a note. She said oh certainly, of course, we can arrange that, and by the way here he comes now.

So she introduced us. I shook his hand. I launched into my short-form explanation of who I was. As soon as I said my name, Mac frowned and said, "Paul Edwards. I never answered your email. How is your research going?"

There followed a polite exchange of maybe five substance-free sentences. Then he began his own explanation. When he received my email, he said, he was collaborating with Padraig O'Malley, who's writing his biography. They had discovered an archive of documents which they had believed destroyed. (What these were, he did not reveal, but promised that they would be put up on the Web when the bio is done. Maybe they're about Vula, maybe not.) This biography project is nearing completion now, but in 2003-04 he didn't want to talk to me because he didn't want his biographer getting scooped.

I assured him this was never likely, then or now. (I'm way too slow.) Then Mac smiled, wished me best luck, and swept on to the podium, with the studied grace of the professional politician, leaving me feeling surprisingly good about being blown off once again. Everyone who knows him says he's charming, and they're right.

Late that night, there he was again, being interviewed on Vancouver TV. And again, the day we got back to the US, he was being interviewed on NPR. Not a word, in any of these interviews, about Maharaj himself, the first democratic government, the Ministry of Transport, Jacob Zuma or Schabir Shaik. Mac was described only as an "editorial consultant" on the book, or a "friend" of Mandela's. They didn't even ask him about his own experience in prison -- only about Mandela. He didn't seem bothered by this. Maybe it's a relief to be somewhere where people have no idea who he is, much less any notion of his recent troubles. Maybe the respect he's due from his struggle years is more available elsewhere than at home.

Here at Free World HQ, all of SA history boils down to Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, and the "struggle for freedom in South America." Nothing and nobody else counts.

Just too weird. And by the way, here he is.


Anonymous said...
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Paul N. Edwards said...

The book Maharaj mentioned has now appeared: Shades of Difference, by Padraig O'Malley. There's a review by Jeremy Harding in the New York Times.

Paul N. Edwards said...

Found a much better review of the O'Malley book at the Mail & Guardian (SA).

Anonymous said...

Weird sory indeed, continuation of the chilling side of the SA history. Is your research about the VULA communication structure published? I was part of Vula, but had nothing to do with the techno side of it, just curious. Have just finished reading Padraig's book.