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Excerpt from Justine van der Leun’s ‘We Are Not Such Things’

"We Are Not Such Things," by Justine van

"We Are Not Such Things," by Justine van der Leun. Credit: Spiegel & Grau

It is Tuesday, July 8, 1997, a pleasantly cool and rainless day. Easy sits before a packed room of spectators, family members, friends of both the convicted men and Amy, PAC loyalists, ANC loyalists, lawyers, judges, TRC commissioners, and Linda and Peter Biehl. The space is steamy, each seat taken, an overflow leaning against the walls. Before Easy, a black microphone and a pitcher of water. On the front edge of the pale wooden table at which he sits is taped a paper sign bearing one large typed word: APPLICANT.

A banner, in lime green and white and black, spans the wall behind him:




Easy is twenty-seven years old, and has spent the past five years shuttling between maximum-security prisons around the region. In 1994, he was at Pollsmoor, until he was transferred to Helderstroom, an enormous facility at the edge of the bucolic town of Caledon. There, he caught tuberculosis.

“We call it Hell-derstroom,” he told me. “It was too much hell. The wind is cold, cold, cold, the shower is cold, the window is broken, the warders only speak Afrikaans. The mat I sleep on was wet, concrete is always wet, water came up through it. When I go to shower my body was so cold. I put soap on my cloth, open the cold water, I wait, I count, firstly I have to jog, jog, jog, let my blood warm. Then when I get there, is one-two-three and get out. With my TB, I was coughing, chest was so sore. But my father said, ‘Don’t be weak. Tell that mind you are not weak.’”

He only barely recovered from TB, refusing medicine he was convinced was state-sanctioned poison (“Now I think, Easy, you stupid, you torture yourself for six months”). The first day of the Truth Commission hearings, he is coming from Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.

Easy’s oversized prison-issue spectacles dwarf his small, pimpled face. He has grown a squiggle of a mustache, which has the unintended effect of making him look like a teenager. His printed yellow polo shirt is tucked into his high-waisted black trousers, cinched with a belt. On his feet, he sports a pair of colossal, sparkling white Adidas high-tops.

To Easy’s right, Ntobeko slumps, his skin dark and luminous, his eyes wide, his lips pressed together. He wears a printed buttercup-yellow polo shirt that pools around his neck, oversized blue jeans, and the exact same high-tops as Easy, just as spit-shined and glowing white. He, too, has managed to eke out the slightest of mustaches, and he, too, looks neither older nor manlier for it.

To Easy’s left sits Vusumzi Ntamo, his hair trimmed neatly, his knees spread. His mother and aunts have pooled their money to buy him an ill-fitting beige suit and a pair of shiny black shoes. Next to Vusumzi, Mongezi Manqina leans back and chews on his ever-present toothpick, his chin raised. He wears a fitted brown leather jacket, an ironed red and black checked-plaid shirt, and his own pair of enormous, spotless white high-tops, with bubble letters spelling out AIR covering the sides.

The men sit utterly still, only the pupils of their eyes darting back and forth, as the photographers take endless shots, their lenses clicking, their flashes flashing, the cameramen jostling to get the best angles. They are lying on the floor, kneeling on tables. Journalists furiously jot down notes.

Prison was dark, and so was the truck they were transported in, with little square openings covered in a crosshatch of bars. For years, they have been numbers in the system, indistinguishable from the masses, but now the room is fluorescent-lit, with large sunny windows, camera sparks flying, and hundreds of eyes boring into them.

In the corner, a man, legs crossed, casually reads a local paper with the headline: ONUS ON BIEHL’S KILLERS TO PROVE POLITICAL MOTIVE. A head shot of smiling Amy accompanies the article. In the front row of the audience, facing the men, are Peter and Linda Biehl, and Amy’s South African roommate, Melanie Jacobs. The Biehls are the only Americans to sit before the TRC. They run the Amy Biehl Foundation, which they founded in 1994, and have been rubbing shoulders with ANC elites for a few years now.

Melanie and the Biehls entered, moments earlier, to much media attention. The reporters stumbled around them, walking backward, making way. Linda, her hair at a sharp angle, wears a large gold heart locket containing Amy’s picture. She smiles widely, greeting audience members, and turns in her seat to chat with acquaintances. Peter is stiff in his gray suit and red tie, his face set, just barely, to neutral. Melanie wears her black hair pushed back with a cotton band, her nose pierced with a silver hoop, her hands covered in rings, strands of pearls tight around her neck. Her face is heavy and slack, and she often places her head on Peter’s shoulder. Two years later, Melanie, newly engaged, will pitch herself off a balcony and die as she hits the street below.

Wowo Nofemela, Easy’s father, sits quietly a few rows behind the Biehls, on the far side of the room. His head is shaved bare, his posture erect, his beard trimmed, his wire-rim glasses balanced on his nose, his hands placed in his lap just below his bowling-ball belly. He does not shift. A few rows away, Mongezi Manqina’s mother, her face bloated and her eyes hooded, absently nods her head, her lips pressed together and turned down.

Monks, Easy’s brother, is mobile on that day, twelve years before he will be thrown from a taxi. He shifts around. He slides down in his chair, shrouding his face with both his hands as a camera zooms in on him and lingers.

The Biehls stand as Vusumzi’s mother and aunt approach, two stout little ladies, one in her signature maroon beret. They lean in, offer their hands to the Americans. Linda beams, bright lipstick and perfect teeth. Peter does not.

“Hi, I’m Peter,” he says in his earnest Midwestern twang, stiffly engaging in an African handshake, towering over the ladies. “It’s very nice to meet you. We’re parents, too, so we’re in solidarity. Good luck today.”

From the book “We Are Not Such Things” by Justine van der Leun. Copyright © 2016 by Justine van der Leun. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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