Choosing the Rebel Tour
A visitor to Cape Town takes an alternative look at South Africa's recent past
The flashy downtown office of Cape Town Tourism had racks of brochures advertising every type of tour in Western Cape Province . . . except for the one I wanted.
I went to the official-looking agent sitting behind the desk, ears covered with large headphones. "Have you heard of Western Cape Action Tours?" I asked him. "Oh, them," he snorted. "They aren't sanctioned by the tourism board. Why not take another one of the tours?" motioning to the stacks.
Perhaps seeking out a leftist guerrilla tour operator wasn't such a great idea after all.
Western Cape Action Tours (WECAT) wasn't exactly your average sit-in-a-bus tour operator complete with lovely-looking guide and a fixed restaurant stop. No, this Cape Town-based non-profit organization was run by former soldiers of Umkhonto We Sizwe, or MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), who fought against the old apartheid regime of South Africa.
WECAT's Sites of Memory tours take visitors to places that most white South Africans, aware of rising crime rates and a history of unrest, would never dream of visiting. Places like the Cape Flats townships, a sandy stretch of land on the outskirts of Cape Town, where the majority of the city's residents make their home. During the turbulent 1980s, this area--along with Soweto in Johannesburg--was known as the heartland of resistance to apartheid.
It was this side of South Africa that I wanted to see, no matter what the tourism board said.
The book, Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull, had captivated me. It is a reporter's account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings that took place throughout South Africa during 1996-98. The book includes word-for-word testimony of many of apartheid's victims, including a young man named Yazir Henry, a former MK soldier who co-founded WECAT.
Perhaps it was my Jewish heritage that me curious. In some ways, I equated the Holocaust with the horrors of apartheid. When I was young, I watched my grandmother suffer from losing 42 members of her family to the Nazis. To this day, I have struggled to forgive the Germans. By exploring the past in the new South Africa, through the people that actually endured apartheid, I hoped to gain a better understanding of "reconciliation"--one of the seven pillars of the country's new constitution. I thanked the agent for his suggestion, but explained that I really wanted to find WECAT. He removed his headphones, huffed, and begrudgingly provided me a phone number.
Meeting the guides
A few days later, a red minivan carrying former guerrillas pulled up to my Cape Town hotel. Out jumped two guides from WECAT--Mxolisi "Thabo" Mbilatshwa and Vuyani Mamani Ka Sobethethe. A sweet old man poked his head out the window and introduced himself as the driver. "I'm Desmond," he said, smiling. "I'm Yazir's father." We were joined by two Americans.
We drove in silence for a few uncomfortable minutes before stopping at an open field of lush overgrown grass by the highway. We all got out of the van, and I noticed both Thabo and Vuyani were roughly my size, which was average. Thabo had more command of English and was a bit more confident and savvy. Vuyani had softer eyes and there was an undeniable sweetness about him.
Thabo explained that this vacant area was known as District 6, which was once Cape Town's most vibrant community. Africans were the first to be "resettled" from the District back in 1901, long before apartheid became the official government policy in 1948. By 1982, 60,000 had been forcibly removed from the District, their homes destroyed by bulldozers, and relocated to a barren outlying area called the Cape Flats.
Thabo and Vuyani told us they were both raised in the Cape Flats and were recruited as kids to be soldiers for Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK).
"In 1985 many young people--including myself--left South Africa and went into exile, in search of arms," said Vuyani, who looked more like a reggae singer, with his hair in thin dreadlocks, than a gun-toting guerrilla soldier. "This is the year we as young people took the decision to not only be prepared to die--for a cause we believed was just--but also to kill for the cause."
Both Thabo and Vuyani were sent to Angola, where they fought alongside Cuban soldiers ("Our compadres!" Thabo said) and against the South African-backed UNITA rebels. Thabo got his military training in East Germany ("Good times . . . hot baths!"), while Vuyani was sent to Tanzania.
When the ANC achieved power in 1994, some MK returned from exile and joined the national army, but many others (like Thabo and Vuyani) didn't. They faced manifold challenges in adapting to the new South Africa, including psychological alienation, post-traumatic stress and chronic unemployment.