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, this book, but now everything that comes out of my keyboard is about an underground resistance operation, -and a foiled one at that,- instead of about love.
During those first days, he did not tell me about Operation Vula. I was certainly not a part of it. But what we did, in hazy, chaotic Lusaka, during that aftermath when Vula was blown and he was busy (I realised later) erasing traces and burning documents, was making connections. And making connections had been a central feature of Operation Vula, too.
He took me to meet so many people. 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. A set of motherly cluck-clucking social workers, belonging to the Woman’s League. Dutch Lucia, who lived in the house where the Vula telephone was. Reggie, often-drunk Reggie, whose catchphrase was “If you don’t make happy for yourself nobody gonna make happy for you.”
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 what Vula had been: an underground network that connected the resistance inside South Africa with the ANC in exile, until it was uncovered and smashed, with leaders like Mac Maharaj arrested.
The Vula ‘lite’ thoughts come up because running around and connecting people was what Vula was about. It is also what Ivan has always done and still does. He meets people and remembers them, meets them again later and connects them to each other. The connections, first and foremost, help the initiatives he has in mind, but they are also good for everybody; he will connect the car mechanic to the social worker who is having car trouble, too.
When he connected me to people in Lusaka, I found some of them boring. The ANC Youth League guys with their bombastic political language were simply insufferable, and the Women’s League ladies appallingly un-feminist. I was therefore not always happy about plans to meet more such people again, the next day. Only later it started to dawn on me that all this connecting, even if one did not realise it at the time, was good for something. Operation Vula was over, but the value of making connections was not.
Decades later, I read about the value of connections in the context of the Dutch resistance against the Nazis during World War II. The book ‘In ‘t Hooge Nest’ by Roxane van Iperen mentions the case of a woman who had had to shoot a collaborating policeman on her doorstep, because he was about to discover a Jewish child hiding inside. To get rid of the man’s body, she ran to the baker in the next street who had a van. The two of them had then carried the body in the van to the local undertaker, who was the baker’s friend. They put the corpse in a coffin together with another departed soul who was about to be cremated. Both were burned together and nobody was the wiser, least of all the grieving family of the person who had received company.
Without a connection to the baker, and the undertaker, the woman could not have solved the situation.
‘It is precisely such situations you were dealing with in the South African underground,’ Ivan will comment, then. ‘They were not all so dramatic, but all successful work needed such rooted infrastructure.’
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 who had supported the operation, and whom I later met at a party. I understand it now. Even though at the time in Lusaka, finding real Russian caviar in his fridge was more of a highlight for me than that.