We Are Not Such Things - Justine van der Leun

STATE LAWYER: You see what I am going to suggest to you, Mr. Nofemela, is that the attack and brutal murder of Amy Biehl could not have been done with a political objective. It was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood. Isn’t that the truth?

EASY NOFEMELA: No, that’s not true, that’s not true. We are not such things.

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The journalists and documentarians and small-time film producers filed out of the van and toward St. Columba Anglican Church, a gray-brick building on the corner of NY1 and NY109 in Gugulethu, a township eleven miles outside Cape Town city center. Easy and I stayed behind, he in the driver’s seat and me on the passenger’s side. Easy was a short, compact man with butterscotch skin and a large, round, clean-shaven head. At forty-two, he had this weird ability to shape-shift. Did he look like a hardened old gangster? Yes, some days. Did he look like an adorable, harmless child? Yes, some days. In one of the photos I’ve snapped of him over the years, he is menacing, crouching on the ground with a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, his band of brothers behind him, one of them holding up a disembodied sheep’s head. But in the next, he’s curled on a small stool, cradling his infant son and smiling as his ten-year-old daughter drapes herself over his shoulder.

Easy laughed generously, from the belly, and moved in quick spurts. His features were framed by a constellation of small dark scars: from a knife fight, a stick fight, an adolescent bout with acne, that time he crashed a van into a horse in the middle of the night and then fled, that time the taxi he was riding in collided with a hatchback, and a recent incident involving a scorned ex-girlfriend with long nails and a vendetta. His arms were dotted with fading ballpoint-pen tattoos—one pledging devotion to a long-defunct street gang, one to a prominent prison gang, and one to an old flame named Pinky. The first one had become infected immediately, when he was fifteen, and his mom had spent months tending to it. After that, for a few years at least, Easy felt like it made him look particularly tough.

I liked Easy very much. I won’t pretend otherwise. But then again: precisely twenty years before our meeting in the van, on August 25, 1993, and approximately fifteen yards away, Easy had been part of a mob that had hunted down a young white American woman. If you plucked her out of that moment in history and slotted me in, my fate would have likely been the same. Easy chased her through the streets, chanting the slogan “One settler, one bullet,” and hurled jagged bricks at her. He stabbed at her as she begged for her life. She died, bleeding from her head and her chest, on the pavement just across the road.

At least this is the crime Easy repeatedly claimed to have committed. He was convicted of her murder, and sentenced to eighteen years in jail. He’d done it, he publicly stated, because “during that time my spirit just says I must kill the white.” The dead woman was named Amy Biehl, and she was twenty-six years old.

Once we finished our conversation, Easy and I hopped out of the van. He locked the door and patted the hood. The vehicle was a shiny silver donation from a local auto dealership that said across the side in bold letters: THE AMY BIEHL FOUNDATION.

We walked toward the church together, but as I stepped toward the door, Easy lingered in the winter sunshine. “I’m coming now,” he said. This was South Africanese for “I’ll be right back.”

I went on without him. A sorry-eyed man in an ill-fitting suit motioned me into a pew. I slid in and scanned the room, its high ceilings, its tall burning votives. On a portrait nailed high above on the wall, a white Jesus, as lithe and glossy as a Hollywood star, reclined among a small herd of angelic lambs. Behind the pulpit hung an enormous cross.

I could see Amy Biehl’s mother, Linda, sitting several rows ahead, her sharp platinum bob distinct in a dark sea of cornrows, weaves, wraps, curls, and towering church hats. Linda was the sort of woman who swept into town, and then swept into rooms, and then swept around rooms, her lipstick and eyeliner painted in broad, unbroken lines. She was nearly seventy. She liked to tell stories to rapt