- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2001

JOHANNESBURG Hundreds of backpackers on African safaris during the final days of apartheid were used as unwitting decoys for a massive gun-smuggling ring for South African guerillas.

Members of the African National Congress' military wing set up a fake travel company, Africa Hinterland Safari, in the late 1980s and advertised cut-rate tours down the coast of East Africa into South Africa, according to a documentary aired yesterday.

But the safari truck that carried the tourists had been specially designed with secret compartments to hold limpet mines, machine guns, pistols and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

"The decoy of the people on the truck seemed to be a great deterrent to anybody who wanted to search the truck because they would be inconveniencing a lot of people," said Rodney Wilkinson, a member of the ANC's military wing, in the documentary aired on South Africa's E-TV.

The Africa Hinterland Safari tours began in Nairobi, Kenya, and continued down the east coast of Africa, across the South African border. After dropping off the tourists in Cape Town, the drivers unloaded the weapons, which were delivered to ANC guerrillas.

Between 1986 and 1993, the safari truck entered South Africa 40 times, carrying a ton of weapons each time.

South Africa's apartheid regime ended in 1994, when the country held its first all-race vote and elected ANC leader Nelson Mandela as president.

Many of the travelers on the trucks were young tourists from New Zealand and Australia, chosen because they were self-sufficient, would not ask too many questions and were unlikely to get sick.

The safari's drivers were trained to appear innocuous at border crossings, but also were forced to become good tour guides.

"The passengers who actually went with Africa Hinterland got such a much better deal than most of the other companies, because we were so worried about the business failing because it was the cover," said Mike Harris, a driver for the company, in the documentary.

Some of the smugglers were ambivalent about the operation.

"There were these 15 to 18 innocent young tourists sitting on a powder keg," said Jenny Harris, who worked as a sales representative for the company. "Of course in the end, you say the end justifies the means."

The drivers said they felt the tourists were never in any danger. They would not have gotten in trouble if discovered because they honestly were ignorant of the smuggling. And the explosives were packed very safely.

But one of the chief planners of the operation was not as confident about its safety.

"The big risk wasn't that we would be discovered at the border crossing, the big risk was an accident and an explosion," said Mannie Brown, a member of the ANC's military wing.

Many of the passengers interviewed appeared shocked, but delighted, about their unwitting role in the struggle.

"It's probably one of the best things I did, in hindsight," said passenger Misha Coleman. "If that was a contributing factor to apartheid being overturned, I'm very glad, very glad."

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