Gavin Foster
Gavin Foster

So who is this Che Guevara then?

When the news broke that Durban’s Moore Road was going to be renamed after a famous motorcyclist I nearly choked on my morning muffin. Was the ruling party going soft? Which of our province’s four motorcycle world champions had cracked the nod? The thought of riding my bike down Ballington Boulevard, Ekerold Expressway, Langston Close or Rattray Retreat thrilled me no end.

The reality, when it arrived, was crushing. “Che’s streets ahead” screamed the newspaper headline, quenching the warm and fuzzy glow I’d begun developing towards Durban’s mendacious city manager and his sycophantic cohorts. The article on the renaming of Moore Road quoted the deputy speaker for the provincial legislature, Mtholephi Mthimkhulu, as urging those opposed to the change to “revisit history books and understand the significant role that Che Guevara had played, not only in South Africa, but the continent”. Chastened and apologetic, I took the politico’s advice and started reading up on the revolutionary icon who is supposed to have played such a significant role in our history.

Guevara wrote a book called The Motorcycle Diaries purportedly about his 1952 South American wanderings on a wanked-out 500cc Norton, “begging, drinking and borrowing their way through Argentina’s northern neighbours,” as one biographer puts it. The ride, although enjoyable, was disappointingly short. Che, then a medical student, maintained two-wheeled momentum through just 44 of the book’s 155 pages before his decrepit motorcycle self-destructed, which should really have evicted the middle word from his book’s title. The rest of his writing is devoted to boasting about how he and his friend conned their way around South America, pretending to be qualified doctors and treating the locals in exchange for food, strong drink, transport and sex. In fact, an earlier motorcycling expedition of Che’s, although not as well publicised as his abortive later effort, was altogether more successful. In the summer of 1951 the future guerrilla leader attached a 38cc Garelli cyclemotor to a bicycle and embarked on a month-long ride across Argentina. As far as I can establish, he didn’t once have to abandon ship along the way, although he must have had to pedal a fair bit.

It should be becoming clear to you that Durban’s ruling elite wasn’t rewarding Comrade Che for his services to motorcycling when they erased Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore from our city’s history. What on earth was all the fuss about then? Che may have had high ideals, but as an achiever he was pretty useless.

Che respected women, and always gave them a hand — right onto the dining-room table, according to one of his friends, who says that he called Che the “Fast Rooster” because while they were eating dinner one night the host’s maid entered the room. Quick as a flash, Comrade Che forced her to climb onto the table where he subjected her to a thorough rogering. “After he finished he got rid of the poor devil, and continued eating as if nothing had happened,” wrote Carlos Figuero. Apparently Che had a reputation for knobbing all the comely female servants of his wealthy family and friends, whether they fancied the idea or not.

Che’s acolytes, most of whom know absolutely nothing about the man except that the photograph of him in his beret looks gorgeous on a well-filled T-shirt, claim that he made ordinary folks’ lives immeasurably better. They don’t point out, though, that as soon as he got into power in Cuba, he also made many of them appreciably shorter. According to one account, a woman approached him in his office to plead for the life of her 17-year-old son who Che had summarily sentenced to death. Poor Mum can’t have been at all attractive, because Che made her stand next to his desk rather than lie on it while he phoned his thugs and ordered them to shoot the youth immediately to save his mum further distress. Biographers say that Che later admitted to ordering the execution without trial of between 2 000 and 3 000 fellow Cubans in the first months after Castro’s rebellion. The man so revered by Durban’s political hierarchy executed dozens of those victims himself, with a bullet through the back of the head. When a subordinate once objected to him condemning prisoners without trial, Che accused him of being afflicted with petty bourgeois values, and told him that if he wanted, he could organise a trial for the next morning. “But take them outside this afternoon and shoot them first,’ he added.

In his diary of February 18, 1957, Che tells how he executed a comrade, Eutimio Guerra, by shooting him through the head, then struggled to detach the man’s watch from his belt during the ten minutes it took him to die. He eventually snapped the chain, “and his possessions were now mine”, he wrote in his diary after the event. Che carried on, in a letter to his father, “I’d like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered I really like killing”. Our favourite rabble-rouser wasn’t so keen on dying, though. When cornered during the abortive rebellion he later tried to organise in Bolivia, Che, who was armed with a pistol at the time, threw up his arms and cried, “Don’t shoot. I’m Che. I’m worth more to you alive than dead!” The Bolivian soldiers didn’t agree, and executed him by firing squad two days later.

Che Guevara was a failure at just about everything he did, and his sole African adventure — a failed rebellion in the Congo the year before he died — was amongst the most pathetic of his grubby little escapades. He arrived in Africa puffed up and ready for battle, only to discover that he was unwanted, unwelcome and unlikely to gather a following. The locals weren’t interested in fighting alongside this deeply intense, long-haired honky, and our favourite failed rabble-rouser went into such a sulk that his own Cuban forces ended up thinking he’d gone mad. In the end it took little effort for Durban’s Colonel Mike Hoare and his 300 South African mercenaries to kick him into touch — perhaps we need a Hoare Rd in Durban. Che headed back to South America with his tail between his legs, and in 1966 went to Bolivia for his last hurrah.

What should really bar Che Guevara from being lauded in this country, though, are his views on race, as recorded in his own words in The Motorcycle Diaries. There he describes blacks as “those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of affinity to bathing” and goes on to say “the black is indolent and a dreamer, spending his meagre wage on frivolity or drink: the European has a tradition of work and saving which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations”. His blindly loyal fan club will no doubt respond that this was written when he was very young. Rubbish. Che was a young adult, a final-year medical student who had already formed firm opinions and felt nothing for people as individuals — his rabid Stalinist ideology was all, and heaven forbid that anybody should get in his way.

As I see it, Che Guevara’s one redeeming feature was that he enjoyed motorcycles before he turned into a militantly Stalinistic zealot. Perhaps if that old Norton had proved more reliable he’d have stuck to two wheels and retained his sanity. It’s sort of worked for me so far …

  • First published in 2Wheels magazine December 2009/2010