Choosing the Rebel Tour

A visitor to Cape Town takes an alternative look at South Africa's recent past

By Andy Tarica, Thursday, Aug 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

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.

"We remained unemployed not because we didn't want to work, but we didn't have the skills necessary for a satisfactory job," Thabo said. "We had participated in the struggle from the time we were 13, 14, 15, 16. When we should have been in school, we took up arms."

WECAT was founded in 1997 to address the hopelessness that faced former MK guerrillas. Its Survivor Support Initiatives are directed at using tourism and education programs to promote job creation and training in the most impoverished townships.

"We want to use our history as a tool to teach the youngsters," said Thabo, a WECAT co-founder. "We try and give you something the tourism board doesn't normally talk about. They don't talk about it because they don't know."

Remembering the martyrs

Back in the van, Desmond drove us southeast toward the Cape Flats. We passed through the last white suburb before the townships. It was pointed out how the walls outside the homes got higher and higher as we closed in. There was barbed wire everywhere.

We passed the power plant that was used by the former government as a border between white and black neighborhoods. The road divided more than just the affluent suburb of Pinelands from the poor township of Athlone. During the apartheid years, "there was no going across that line," Thabo said, "not even for a visit."

Declared a mixed-race or "colored" area in 1936, Athlone was our first stop in the Cape Flats, and Desmond parked in an empty lot next to a roadside exhaust shop. Today this township functions as the commercial and social center of the Cape Flats.

We piled out of the van and were addressed by Vuyani, who had been mostly quiet until now. In deferential silence, we listened to his story of the "Trojan Horse Massacre," which happened here in Athlone, during a time of unrest after the apartheid government had declared a state of emergency.

"They sent police into places of worship and schools," said Vuyani. There were two officers, armed with guns, assigned to each classroom. In response the students organized a boycott and took to the streets. "This is one of those streets," Vuyani said, pointing in front of us to Thornton Road.

An unmarked railroad truck with wooden crates in the back drove past the marching students. It passed once, Vuyani said, and back again. A child threw a rock, and the wooden crates flung open. Police jumped out and began using live ammunition. Three children were killed. "Their names are on the wall over there," Vuyani said.

The crude memorial was across the street on a cement wall in faded spray paint: "Remember--The Trojan Horse Massacre: Shaun, Michael, Jonathan--1985." Years later the men who pulled the triggers were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We also learned about another former MK soldier killed in Athlone. His name was Anton Fransch, and he was also mentioned in Krog's seminal book on the TRC. "I knew him very well," Vuyani said. "He was killed 500 meters from here."

Along with Yazir Henry, Fransch had infiltrated from Angola back into South Africa. In Country of My Skull, Henry tearfully told Archbishop Desmond Tutu how South African police showed up at his front door one day, with a gun to his father's head. Yazir was arrested, beaten and ultimately coerced into revealing the whereabouts of his colleague Fransch. Police then swarmed the home and killed Fransch using a grenade, while Henry was forced to watch.

"Our coming here," said Vuyani, his gentle voice cracking, "is to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our country to be free." With tears in his eyes, he excused himself and walked away, head bowed.

During the afternoon tour, we visited makeshift memorials and other sites of interest in three more townships: Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town, established in 1927; Guguletu, where seven young men ("The Guguletu Seven" from Country of My Skull) suspected of being MK were killed by apartheid security operatives in 1976; and the infamous Crossroads, formerly a stronghold for ANC guerrillas. "This used to be Death Row," Thabo said.

A cordial reception

The townships were not much different from any other Third World shantytowns, with tin shacks, garbage-strewn streets and wandering livestock. But what's shocking about South African townships is their close proximity to such wealth. Travel back down the road and you're in the land of swimming pools, tennis courts and BMWs.

Still the people in the Cape Flats were very friendly. As we stood outside Pinky's Restaurant in Guguletu, a bubbly older woman named Margaret, who ran a small shack-like store, called me over and introduced herself. She asked a favor. "Will you take my picture?" she said. "I want to be photographed by a white person."

On our way back to Cape Town, which was only a half hour by car but seemed like a thousand miles away, we talked openly about the changes taking place in the new South Africa. Both Thabo and Vuyani expressed appreciation for what the new government is trying to do to improve conditions in South Africa, while pointing out their frustrations because big gaps remain between rich and poor.

"Things are better than yesterday," Thabo said. "Today everything is more equal. We've got more schools, big hospitals, we've got water, and in some informal areas we have electricity. The only trouble is when we are unemployed it's very difficult. And that is true across color lines."

By early evening, we were back at my hotel in Cape Town. I had only been away for a few hours, yet the city seemed completely different to me now. It was one thing to read about reconciliation. But it was quite another to venture into the townships with former resistance fighters, who believe that forgiving doesn't necessarily mean forgetting, and actually live that philosophy every day. South Africa is showing the world, and me, forgiveness is a powerful and obtainable human quality.

Thabo told me that it wasn't long ago he thought "all white people were wrong, whether they were South Africans or Americans. But today I can look at you straight in the eye, without shaking . . . . By taking this tour, you are helping to cross the racial divide, where people can look at each other, not as black or white, but as human beings."

I thanked him and Vuyani for the tour, said goodbye to the two Americans, and turned to Desmond Henry. During the tour's quieter moments, Yazir's father and I had discovered a common interest--that is, sports.

Now as we parted ways, Desmond told me that if I returned in 2010--when South Africa hosts the soccer World Cup--I could stay with him in the Cape Flats. I'm not sure what the tourism board would say about that, but it sounded like a great idea to me. Along with Team USA and South Africa, maybe I'd even find it in my heart to root for Germany.

If you go: WECAT runs half-day tours into the Cape Flats for about $35. Email wcat@iafrica.com for more information. Inkululeko Tours (inkululeko@mweb.co.za) also runs recommended township tours in Cape Town. Hotel Fritz is at 1 Faure Street, in the Gardens district. Contact fritzhotel.co.za.