By Katie Yaeger
The police-enforced curfew was 10 o’clock. At 9, Chris Tapscott began to hear a slow, steady, ongoing knock. He opened the door.
“Zolo has been injured in the attack,” a man he knew said. He had been shot in the crossfire by his own men. Tapscott knew him, respected him for his ideological commitment to change. “We desperately need to get a doctor. Do you know of any?”
In this moment, he went from standing on the sidelines to taking action. He said he did.
Before the knock
Tapscott’s political involvement started with turning a blind eye to it.
After beginning a doctoral program at the London School of Economics, Tapscott returned to South Africa in 1985 to do fieldwork, resuming his work at the University of Transkei as director of the Institute for Management and Development Studies. He quickly realized that, in his absence, the African National Congress had been using the institute’s research as a front for training new members of a uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK, cell. He didn’t say anything.
“(The four men) were supposedly training for a football team,” he said. “We were doing fieldwork — we were doing surveys and interviews in local communities — and they would ask for oil. It’s not something you normally start training a soccer team with, oil.”
Instead, he got to know the men. One in particular began sharing with Tapscott a bit about the operations, occasionally recommending a document to read or the like.
Then, they asked Tapscott for a place to stay. As it happened, there was a vacancy in university housing; a researcher had left, and a new one was supposed to arrive in a few weeks.
“You can stay there until I get the replacement,” he told them.
A few weeks turned into a few months, during which time Tapscott became even closer to the men. They didn’t allude to their plans, however, until July of 1986; after requesting a new place to crash, the MK cell’s leader warned him against visiting public places on the anniversary of the South African Communist Party’s founding.
“In the flat where I’m staying, there’s a wall that has ivy growing over it,” he told Tapscott. “I’ll leave a message under that ivy to let you know what was going down.”
Tapscott went home as if it were a normal day. He didn’t mention the events to his wife; that way, if authorities questioned her, she would be protected.
The next morning, he woke up to find the town buzzing with chatter about the previous night’s attack; members of an ANC cell had attacked the local police station and killed seven policemen. But Tapscott remained silent, and he still wasn’t sure what was going on; he hadn’t found anything under the ivy.
That night, he heard the knock.
After the knock
When Tapscott asked about a doctor, he went to the only person he knew: a former Robben Island prisoner working for the South African Council of Churches.
“It’s too late; there’s a curfew coming up, anyway,” he responded. “You’re in too dangerous territory here.”
Tapscott returned home. At 5 a.m., he heard another knock, this one more ominous than the last.
“Zolo died during the night,” the same man said. “But we want you to help us bury his body.”
When Tapscott went to meet the others and bury the man that afternoon, Peter Wakeland, his deputy director, reprieved him. Tapscott was thankful he didn’t have any involvement — or so he thought.
Later that evening, the remaining members of the cell caught Tapscott as he was packing his bags to leave work and asked him again to help bury the body. The soil was rocky, and people were working in the area, so they stashed it instead of burying it. Wakeland had to go home to his family.
Tapscott told his wife he’d be late for dinner, then hopped into his Suzuki Jeep to pick up the men. Two got in; both had AK-47s.
“The first thing (one) guy says is, ‘Listen, Chris, when we hit a road block, you just drive; we’ll shoot through this,’” he said.
The first thing the men did was take the body down from a tree, where it had been stuck. His body was soft, having started to decompose, and the ground was hard. Digging was difficult. They ended up placing the body in a shallow trench.
“There’s sort of a fatal heroicism about … We’re in the middle of nowhere, and a guy says a valedictory speech to this guy: ‘We won’t mourn our fallen comrade, but pick up his beer and fight on.’ And they sing the national anthem,” Tapscott said. “But it’s me holding this lantern in this forest with a shallow grave when we just buried a guy, and this valedictory speech, singing the anthem of the ANC in this shadowy forest, was, in a sense, quite surreal.”
After the men covered the body, they headed back. It was the same deal as last time: just drive through the road blocks, and the men with the guns would take care of it.
The calm, and then the storm
Nothing happened until Tapscott’s birthday in early September, when he got a call Friday evening from the new MK cell leader while hosting a few friends for drinks.
“We were caught in a road block, and one of our guys has been caught, one of our allies,” the leader said. “You’ve got to get back to the flat and warn these guys now.”
Tapscott told his friends he was going to grab more soda before heading to the flat. The men fled, leaving pamphlets and all sorts of evidence behind. This worried him, but the cell leader reassured him it was fine.
“The guy they caught won’t talk,” he said. “I know him. He’s cool. Don’t worry about it.”
On Monday, when Tapscott went to the flat to show the new researcher around, it was quiet no longer; flashing police cars surrounded the building.
“What the hell’s going on?” the researcher asked.
“I have no idea,” Tapscott lied. He knew they were there for him.
He left Transkei with his wife, puzzled by the situation, and attended a conference in Cape Town. While he was there, Wakeland, his deputy director, called and told him the police had raided his office, taking his “Marxist” books and United Nations human rights poster. However, Wakeland encouraged him to return, and he did.
The next month was difficult for Tapscott as he waited to return to the London School of Economics; he moved around, living out of a bag and anticipating to leave at any moment. Friends cautioned him that people were asking questions, and it was only a matter of time before he was picked up.
One of the men on Tapscott’s staff, a man he didn’t trust, asked him at one point when he was leaving. Tapscott told the man Oct. 10. He actually left Oct. 5.
The police came for him Oct. 8.
Exile and its consequences
While Tapscott was safe but stuck in London, Wakeland and Paulson were arrested; both were eventually released. His wife joined him a month later.
Tapscott’s furniture was impounded. The university wouldn’t pay his leave or pension. He was penniless, living on welfare in a country other than his own. Because of this, he began building his pension late and will have to work longer.
“I don’t regret any of it,” he said. “I was deeply moved by the deaths of those young men.”
He spent three years completing his doctorate in England, then lived in Namibia for five years after gaining his independence. He formally returned to South Africa in 1994.
He said his experience has shaped the way he sees the world today, in post-apartheid South Africa, but he doesn’t consider himself to be a brave person.
“I would just say that in certain circumstances, I know I probably could make a decision that might change my life; I wouldn’t necessarily back down,” he said. “But I don’t view it in any sort of heroic terms. … It’s just part of the journey of my life.”