#2. Becoming the Grand Geek (pt 2)

In the first episode I talked about some of the engineering work I did in the 1980s while I lived in voluntary exile in the UK. The other hugely important part of my life in the UK was about those things that led me to leave South Africa in 1979 and what brought me back to South Africa 10 years later.


I came back to South Africa in July 1989 as an underground operative of the then-banned African National Congress (or ANC). I returned to South Africa to work on a top-secret project at a time when the Apartheid Government seemed to be extremely powerful and appeared to be gearing up for an all-out war to defend white-minority rule in the face of growing resistance coming both from within South Africa and from around the world. I’ve only ever shared my story about this part of my life with a few close friends. I’ve decided to bring it into this podcast because its an essential element in explaining who I am and why I feel so passionately about the future of South Africa and Africa.

Many younger people have asked me to describe Apartheid and what it was like living in Apartheid South Africa. Let me try to paint a picture using an example that became very important in some of the work that I did in the 1990s.

Let’s talk about Electricity.  It’s one of those things that many of us take for granted. In the developed world everyone has access to electricity in their home. It’s used for lighting, heating, cooking and for powering a vast range of appliances and devices. It is only when our electricity supply is disrupted that we appreciate how difficult it is to live without it. The load-shedding we’ve experienced in South Africa over the past few years has certainly made us understand the importance of electricity in our lives.

The “rate of electrification” is an important way to measure the state of development in a country. It’s defined as the percentage of homes that have access to electricity. The highly developed countries of Europe and North America have electrification rates of 100% (or very close to that). In the least developed countries or regions of the world the electrification rate might be as low as 10%. South Africa’s rate of electrification in the 1980s was around 30%. This placed it among the least developed countries in the world. However this overall percentage is an average. It hides a very important fact. If you divided the population of the country into two groups – those with white skins and those with dark skins – the story changed dramatically. The electrification rate for the 1 in 5 of South Africans with white skins was close to 100%, while only about 10% of black South Africans had access to electricity.

In other words all white South Africans had electricity at home     … even those living in tiny towns or in remote farm houses. Eskom (the national electricity utility) and municipalities spared no expense to connect white households to the national grid. In spite of this, the price they paid for electricity was the lowest in the world. The reliability and quality of supply was at a standard expected in Europe and North America. White SA was very “first world”.

Of course that meant that the situation for black South Africans was completely different.

Even old established urban black townships in major cities were not electrified. Soweto wasn’t electrified. A common image was of black families using candles for light and wood, coal and paraffin for heating and cooking, as Eskom’s giant power pylons carried the national grid over – but not into – their homes. For white South Africans energy was clean, cheap and available at the flick of a switch. For Black South Africans access to energy was a daily challenge. Sources of energy were polluting, expensive and difficult to access. The irony of this was that in the 1970’s Eskom had built several huge new power stations that turned out “not to be needed”. This resulted in an over-supply of electrical generation capacity. Several huge power stations were “mothballed” (in other words stood unused) while millions of black women and children spent hours each day collecting wood and dung for cooking and heating.

That was what Apartheid was about. The same stark inequality and weird logic existed around access to water, housing, health care, education, food and the other essentials of life.


As a student at Wits University in the 1970s I joined an organization called SAVS (South African Voluntary Service). Since Wits had been forced by the Apartheid Government to exclude black students in 1959 my fellow students in the early 1970s were almost all white – a tiny number of black South Africans were granted special permission by the Government to study at Wits and a few other “white” universities in professional disciplines like Engineering which the so-called “black universities” didn’t offer. Most white students ignored “politics” and happily enjoyed their privileged position at the white universities. A small minority – labeled the “white left” – used their access to good education and resources to find ways to challenge Apartheid. I aligned myself with the white left. SAVS was a student organization, supported almost exclusively by the white left, that focused on supporting those who were most disadvantaged by Apartheid. These were mainly women and children struggling to survive in the under-developed and desperately poor rural areas of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. SAVS members spent university holidays working with communities in rural areas building classrooms and clinics and setting up vegetable gardens. I became deeply interested in “Appropriate Technology” and took the lead in SAVS in setting up low-tech water- powered pumps and methane digestors in rural villages.

Being part of SAVS was extremely important in my development as a thinking, caring human being. Apartheid shielded most white South Africans from seeing how black South Africans lived – or struggled to live. Between 1972 and 1979 I spent periods of time living and working in communities that were the flip-side of the coin that was the affluent and privileged world I had been born into.


When I finished my PhD I was no longer a full-time student and was no longer able to avoid being called up into the South African army. After basic training, all medically fit white men had to serve for several months each year. At that time the SA army was quelling protests in black townships (often by shooting protestors) and fighting a guerilla war against the ANC and PAC on South Africa’s borders and in neighboring countries. I had done my basic training straight after school, but I was still liable for annual call-ups. I therefore had to decide whether to go into the army every year until I was 40, or to become a conscientious objector and go to prison. The only other option was to leave South Africa. I chose to leave, and in December 1979 I went into voluntary exile in the UK. My plan was to return to Africa as soon as possible to work on Appropriate Technology projects. Recently liberated Mozambique was my “plan A”. As it turned out this plan didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.

While living in the UK I linked up with the exiled South African community, many of whom were very active in anti-apartheid activities. I spent my first year or two keeping a low profile and reading a lot so as to grow my understanding of the reality of the situation in SA (note: all radical anti-apartheid literature was banned in South Africa). I then decided to put myself and the skills I had at the service of those in the ANC working in the shadows in the fight against the Apartheid regime. Bear in mind that South Africa’s Government had a huge intelligence machine working closely with their western allies in the UK, Europe, the USA and elsewhere to monitor, counter and in many cases murder, those working to end Apartheid. Joining the ANC underground or actively joining the struggle against Apartheid, was not a decision that a white South African took easily. Some who made the same choice as me ended up in prison or dead. I’m thinking of Neil Aggett, Jeanette Schoon, Barbara Hogan and many others.

So, while doing my “day jobs” at UMIST, Imperial College and GEC-Marconi Research Centre, I was recruited to work “after hours” on various projects in support of the ANC’s underground. I won’t discuss all of this now, but will focus on the “project” that brought me back to Johannesburg and Wits in 1989.


In about 1986 I teamed up in London with Tim Jenkins. Tim is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Tim is about 4 years older than me. He had been sentenced in 1978 to 12 years in the maximum security prison in Pretoria for setting off pamphlet bombs that were used to distribute ANC and SA Communist Party leaflets. After a year in prison he staged an extremely brilliant and brave escape from Pretoria Central, taking two other political prisoners with him. Years later he wrote the book “Escape from Pretoria” about this.  (Read it!) A movie about Tim’s escape has also been made starring Daniel Radcliffe (the actor who played the role of Harry Potter) as Tim. Who would have thought this when Tim and I started working together?

When I met him, Tim was living in London and working on developing a computer-based secure communications system for the ANC. In any underground struggle communications is often the weakest link. Throughout the history of warfare, breakdowns linked to sending and receiving messages often resulted in one side learning the secrets of the other side and capturing their agents.  The struggle against Apartheid from the 1960s onwards was severely hampered when key people were arrested and/or killed due to a lack of secure communications. There was a huge mismatch between the highly sophisticated intelligence agencies of the Apartheid State, supported by their international friends, and the South African liberation movements communicating by smuggling letters across borders sewn into garments, simple manual encryption, invisible ink and dead letter boxes.

Enter the remarkable Tim Jenkins with a home-grown encryption system using software written in Basic on a personal computer, acoustically-coupled modems and portable tape recorders. Working single-handedly from his rented flat in Islington London, Tim – who didn’t have a technical background – had put together an uncrackable system that made it possible to rapidly communicate between the ANC headquarters in Lusaka with those working underground in South Africa.

My project was to bring my advanced software and engineering skills into Tim’s work and help him develop his system further. Remember this was the 1980’s long before the invention of the Internet. We managed to use early bulletin board systems to improve the speed and security of the communication system. It worked really well!  The problem, however, was that Tim needed someone with good computer skills on the South African end of the communications link. I seemed like the obvious choice. Very few people in the ANC knew anything about the work I had been doing with Tim. Eventually Ronnie Kasrils and Joe Slovo, then the Commander of the ANC’s armed wing MK, made the decision to send me to SA. My cover was to get a job at Wits University in my old Department of Electrical Engineering.  This would give me excellent access to the resources I needed to support Tim’s operation.

It was with this mission that I returned in July 1989 to South Africa to take up a post as a senior lecturer in Electrical Engineering at Wits University. One of the highlights of the next few months came when I secretly received, via the secure communications link between Tim and I, the text of one of the ANC’s most important documents of that time. It was the “Annual 8 January 1990” statement that went public with the terms and conditions for the secret negotiations that were then underway between the ANC and the De Klerk Government. Working in my flat in Hillbrow, I printed the text of the statement out on my Epson dot-matrix home printer and deposited it in a pigeonhole on Wits University’s campus. Three days later others had laid it out and turned it into tens of thousands of printed leaflets that were distributed in townships and workplaces all over South Africa. Remember that at this time the ANC was still banned, and even possessing one of these leaflets would land you in police detention and prison.

That sounds like the plot to a thriller. But also so real because at that time we were on the cusp of real change.

On 2nd February 1990 FW De Klerk unbanned the ANC and other organizations and on February 11th Nelson Mandela was released. The MK high command decided that those working underground in South Africa, like me, should remain underground.  It was not clear until April 27th 1994 that the negotiation process would finally end Apartheid.

As I had done for most of my time spent in Britain, I lived a double life when I returned to South Africa. By day I did the serious work of a senior academic at Wits. At night I worked with Tim on various secret tasks. We decided that I should not be “apolitical”, but that I should reconnect with my pre-exile life as an active participant in the above-ground anti-Apartheid “white left”. When the ANC was unbanned I joined an ANC working group called MEG (the Minerals and Energy Group) and another group of activists working on proposals for a Science Policy in the future democratic government.

When I described life under Apartheid I spoke about the incredible inequality around electricity supply. When I returned to South Africa in 1989 Eskom was in the process of launching a massive electrification programme. Between 1990 and 2000 the overall electrification rate in South Africa grew from 35% to 71%. Over 2.5 million homes were connected to the national grid. At its peak the electrification programme was connecting more than 1000 houses per day. My “day job” at Wits began to focus on ways to use software to support mass electrification.  More about this in our next episode.      

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