15 May 2018. Trying to write about the first time I spent time with Ivan, on a visit to Lusaka at the end of 1990, I keep coming back to Operation Vula. Which is not very romantic. And therefore slightly annoying. I had just decided to put more romance into this thing, but now everything that comes out of my keyboard is about an underground resistance operation, -and a foiled one at that,- instead of about that man I met. All that comes to mind from those first hazy chaotic days in hazy chaotic Lusaka, somehow turns out to be about the people he took me to meet. The wheeler-dealing Zambian with the sister who was dying of Aids. The travel agency lady who would only work for a bottle of whisky from the dollar store. The very loud guys of the ANC Youth League. The motherly cluck-clucking social workers who used their minibus to hunt down a wayward comrade who had run off with a hundred US dollars. Dutch Lucia who lived in the house where the telephone in the garden cupboard was. Reggie, often-drunk Reggie, whose catchphrase was “If you don’t make happy for yourself nobody gonna make happy for you.”
That this should remind me of Operation Vula also doesn’t make sense. Of all these people only Dutch Lucia had anything to do with Vula and I did not even know that then. I would only understand much later that I was there in the aftermath of Vula, that underground network that aimed to connect the resistance inside South Africa with the ANC in exile, but that had been uncovered and smashed, with leaders like Mac Maharaj arrested. Before I arrived in Lusaka Ivan had been busy erasing traces, burning documents by the shoebox-full.
The Vula thoughts come up, I realise, because running around and connecting people was what Vula was about. It is what Ivan does. He meets people and remembers them, collects them, meets them again later and connects them to each other. With every meeting he stores interesting skills and characteristics in drawers in his head, to be put to good use either now or later, the value of each added to the value of the other. They are ingredients for useful plans for lots of purposes all the time. It is calculating, but not cold, because what he does builds things for everybody; he will connect the car mechanic to the social worker who is having car trouble, too. In Lusaka he helps me collect experiences for my writing that will be useful somewhere somehow; just as it may be useful for the Zambian gemstone-and-spare-parts dealer to know someone who writes; just as knowing both of us together will be of value to something else again in the future. Something can come out of an effort where I document people who are waiting in Lusaka, hoping to make a new country at home. People like him, even if he always wants to be left out of the equation himself.
At the time I found the ANC Youth League guys with their bombastic political language simply insufferable, as they still are, and the social workers appallingly un-feminist. I was puzzled and not always happy about the plans to meet more people, visit more places, the next day. Only later it started to dawn on me that I was part of something like Operation Vula, but not actually Operation Vula.
He wanted me to write about Vula. He tried to explain it to me, but it took a long time before I understood.
“Ivan was Vula,” said a Russian I met later at a party, who had supported the operation then. So that is why. I understand it now. Even though at the time in Lusaka, amid shortages of this, that and the other, finding real Russian caviar in his fridge was more of a highlight for me than that.