Letter from Cape Town — From the March 2014 issue

Portrait of a Township

Former militants take on the post-apartheid struggle

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“My daughter, she have a big problem,” Easy Mzikhona Nofemela told me one day on the phone, his voice panicked.

“What kind of big problem?”

“She have terrible pain in her tooth.”

“Do you need a ride to the dentist?”

During the more than two years I spent in Gugulethu, a black township on the outskirts of Cape Town, I was asked for money repeatedly, but with time, fewer people bothered. I once gave a lift to a man who deduced that I was American, inspected my ten-year-old Renault hatchback, and then asked, puzzled, “But where is your Ferrari?” Easy had never asked me for a penny, though he was essentially broke — his modest salary tied up in high-interest cash loans, an exorbitant funeral-coverage plan, a small fund for his daughter’s education, and membership in a service that provided a lawyer in an emergency — and he had never asked for a favor. But he accepted help if I offered.

Photographs from Gugulethu, South Africa © Felix Seuffert/Agence VU

Photographs from Gugulethu, South Africa © Felix Seuffert/Agence VU

I met Easy while researching the murder of a white American Fulbright Scholar named Amy Biehl in Gugulethu in 1993, during the waning days of apartheid. Easy and three other young men had been tried and convicted of Biehl’s murder and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. But in 1997, Easy and his co-accused appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa’s experiment in restorative justice. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it offered release and amnesty to those who could prove that their apartheid-era crimes had been politically motivated.

Easy, then a skinny twenty-six-year-old with Coke-bottle prison-issue glasses and enormous white high-tops, sat before the commission and read from a statement carefully crafted by his attorneys, arguing that he had been incited by leaders of the student wing of his party — the Pan-Africanist Congress, or PAC — who had chanted “One settler, one bullet” at a morning rally, a slogan he’d taken as a direct order. He and his comrades, he said, had been marching down the street when Amy Biehl, in a case of bad timing, drove by to drop off three colleagues. Easy and his co-accused were granted amnesty in 1998 and freed in 1999. After his release, he had apologized to and built a relationship with Biehl’s parents, and he now works as a driver at an NGO they established in her name that provides after-school programs for kids throughout Cape Town’s townships.

The next morning, I left the beige stucco cottage I was renting in Sea Point, a wealthy suburb ten minutes from the city center on a sliver of land by the Atlantic Ocean. Though Sea Point has always been de facto a white area, in 1953 it was officially designated as such by the apartheid government, and it remains predominantly white today. The neighborhood’s streets are narrow and swept clean by a tired army of brown-skinned contract workers in neon vests stamped with the phrase jesus saves. Most homes are hidden from view by walls lined with electric fencing, glass shards, or barbed wire. From my kitchen table, on clear days, when I opened the iron security gate to get a nice view, I could watch paragliders jumping from the peak of Lion’s Head behind me and floating down to a lush rugby field near the promenade at the water’s edge.

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is based in Addis Ababa. Her book about the apartheid-era murder of an American in Cape Town is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau.

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  • Emma

    Justine van der Leun makes a convincing case for why the ANC government has let down poor, and mostly black, South Africans in the twenty years of their undisturbed control of the government in that country, — except for the fact that, fearful, self-censoring liberal that she is, she cannot actually bring herself to excoriate the ANC government, as it deserves, for the deplorable conditions she describes, in Guguletu, at considerable length. Instead, she flips her critical gaze to what’s easy for her to criticize: the wealthy mostly-white (and inundated with expats from Europe, not acknowledged), suburbs of the Cape Town bowl. However, white, and foreign, Cape Town residents are just civilians, like inhabitants of of any middle class American suburb, who pay their taxes, and pursue their lives, in the hope that their elected government will exercise power, and spend public monies, toward the greater good for all citizens. Writers like van der Leun don’t seem to get the fact, twenty years on, that the minority populations of South Africa are not in power, and that power lies with the ANC government, and its many paid civil servants who are accomplishing, or failing, in their ANC-government-assigned roles. Guguletu is, clearly, an inhuman and brutal place, so why not criticize the people who actually hold, and control, power and public monies to fix the problems? What would it cost van der Leun to speak truth to power, and aim her criticism at a wasteful, corrupt and unresponsive ANC government who actually controls present-day South Africa?

    • gvanderleun

      What would it cost to speak truth to the ANC? It might cost security and freedom now or in the not too distant future.

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