After Tears

By Jon Huggett

Published in here on 2020-9-16


Twenty years ago, on 16th September 2000, my dear friend Lot Sopeng was brutally murdered.  The police were slow in their investigation until Lot’s friends in places high and low prodded and helped the hunt for the killer, who was eventually brought to trial and sentenced in 2002.  I sat at the back of the trial, with Lot’s family and friends, watching the murderer reveal himself.  I was so moved that I published an account the next year.

Earlier this year mutual friends remembered him and how he connected us.  We missed him, and after shedding tears, we celebrated the joy he brought, and still brings.  We imagined what he would have said, had he been with us.  And we hoped that the world is now a safer place.

But this year has been sobering.  In June, in a horrible co-incidence, three of my black gay friends were attacked, and I don’t mean microaggressions.  A friend who lives in a mostly white town outside London, was assaulted by racist neighbors.  Luckily a friendly neighbor caught it on video.  Sadly, a few weeks later, fully stressed out, he had a massive heart attack and would have died but for the swift intervention of an NHS Ambulance crew.  In South Africa a friend was attacked on a golf course he partly owns by a man with a golf club who called him a “black c*nt” and told him to get off the land. In the US Professor Robert Reid-Pharr received hate mail in his Harvard account from a bank.

My black gay friends still stand in the dangerous intersection of acceptable violence against black men and acceptable violence against LGBT people.  We saw what happened to poor George Floyd.  Every gay couple I know checks around before holding hands in public.  “Corrective rape” is a nasty name for a nastier crime.  There is an epidemic of violence against trans people.  The police sometimes help, and sometimes do not.  In May, my friend Kevin Maxwell published the book “Forced Out”, which documents his grim experience as an out gay black cop in the UK.

Over the last 20 years I’ve been lucky to live in Johannesburg, New York, London and San Francisco.  Every place is unique, and it is easy to discount stories from elsewhere: South Africans scorn British colonialism, Brits abhor US gun ownership, and Americans call South Africa “the failed revolution.” But we can learn from difference – we can share sorrows and we can share joys.

You might wonder what a murder in Africa 20 years ago might have to do with #BlackLivesMatter today.  I’ve wondered what Lot would have said, if he were alive now.  He taught me how to live in South Africa.  Take your heart for a walk and come with me to Johannesburg 20 years ago, and then wonder with me.

Lot’s murder was brutal. The killers beat him savagely in his home at midnight and stabbed him many times in the chest with a vegetable knife. Their choice of weapon suggested that the murder was not premeditated. But they intended to kill. They hid his body beneath a bed and drove off in his blue VW and anything they could cram into it, including his phone, hi-fi, computer and clothes.

A dinner guest probably killed him. There were no signs of forcible entry. In the kitchen sink were three dinner plates, three wine glasses, and an empty bottle of wine. Lot had only said that he was cooking dinner with “two friends” when his colleague Musa had phoned at 8:30pm.

Three hours later, Lot was still alive. At 11:23pm Winston Modise called to ask for a lift home. His car had broken down. Lot told Winston that he’d pick him up in a few minutes and left a note for someone saying: “I’ll be back in 15 minutes”. Winston waited and waited, shivering in the cold drizzle. He returned inside to call again but Lot’s phone was off.

Lot did not normally stand friends up, nor leave his mobile off. Winston sensed that something was wrong and walked to Lot’s house. Lights were left on, but no one was in. The front door was open, although the steel gate in front had been locked.

Concerned, he went to the police, who returned with him to investigate. As they arrived, Shekeshe Mokgosi, Lot’s housemate, was returning from his visiting his mother.

Shekeshe immediately saw evidence of a burglary. Stuff was strewn around. The hi-fi was missing. Clothes were gone. He noticed that his bed had been moved. Looking beneath, he found Lot’s battered body.

Lot Lephatsi Sopeng had flourished in the new South Africa. Born in 1967 in Alexandra, a poor part of Johannesburg, he received the second-class education reserved for blacks by the apartheid regime. But he rose to become an international executive with Munich Re, one of the biggest reinsurance companies in the world. On the way, he had earned a diploma in nursing, and was completing a degree in psychology just as he was killed. He was fluent in no fewer than seven languages.

Lot’s taste for clothes combined with partial color blindness had created some striking outfits. He relished travel, good food and adventure. His last letter to me, days before he died, told of his recent travels to Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Seychelles. He complained about crime after his phone was stolen in Kenya. But it gave him the excuse to get a smart new one.

An incurable extrovert, Lot brought people together. His adventures were with people, and friends included Mandela’s grandson Ntsika, Angolan refugees and me, a white foreigner.  He reached out across race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

He loved living in Yeoville, a mixed part of Johannesburg. Originally reserved for whites, in the 80s it had acquired a bohemian air. Artists and liberals moved in. Danny Berger, a human rights lawyer and Lot’s landlord, recalls protesting the ‘whites only’ rule at Yeoville Swimming Pool in 1986. With the end of apartheid in the 90s, blacks moved in. Lot loved to invite friends for dinner to his hundred-year old home with wooden floors and moldings. And that was how he died.

But at first, the police did not pursue case 339/09 vigorously. They did a cursory search but messed up fingerprints on the wine glasses. Despite Winston’s exhortations they did not take cigarette butts for DNA testing. Lot and Shekeshe rarely smoked.

The case might have rested there but for some extraordinary collaboration. Lot’s wide circle of friends, in places high and low, tried to track his killers, and pushed the investigation through the streets of Johannesburg to the courthouse.

There is a saying in Tswana, Lot’s first language, that a human being is hard: “Motho o thata”. Metaphorically, it means that you can kill the flesh, but you can’t kill the spirit. Lot’s spirit was his friendships, which came to haunt his killers.

Edwin Cameron, the only openly gay judge on the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa, knew Winston and Lot. On hearing of Lot’s death, and the meagre interest shown by the police, he weighed in and insisted that a top detective be assigned. A month after the murder, Inspector van der Walt of the Brixton Murder & Robbery Squad, started hunting for Lot’s killer.

The crucial lead was Lot’s phone. Someone had used it at 7:20am on September 17, just a few hours after his death.  And, it was still in use, now with a different SIM card.  The inspector called the number and met the current user, a nice well-dressed lady. Horrified of the purpose of his visit, she showed him the receipts for both her SIM card and the phone.  She led the detective to Dudu Nyanga, a handsome Angolan who had sold her the phone.

On the spot, Dudu denied selling the phone. But the next day he changed his tune, claiming that he had bought it from a man called Misha ‘sometime midweek’. Phone records showed that the receipt given by Dudu was a forgery. But the evidence so far did not prove that Dudu was the killer. When the case first went to court, prosecutor Simelane asked for time to gather more evidence.

However, the police were drawing blanks. Then a new lead came from a chance meeting with an old friend. Returning from a discussion with Simelane, Winston was frustrated with the lack of progress, and frankly feeling a bit depressed. His architectural business was in trouble and he missed Lot. He went for a drink.

As luck would have it, he ran into an old friend, Checko, a refugee from Congo. He asked why Winston was so sad and listened to the sorry tale. He asked when Lot had been killed and shuddered at how soon it had been after their last meeting. Checko and Lot had been drinking that Saturday until Lot had left at 8pm for an appointment at home.

Checko reflected and began to put two and two together. He had been living in a squat at the time, just a couple of blocks from Lot’s house. Fellow squatters had told of an argument that night over the spoils of a robbery. Checko led Winston to the house. They saw enough to tell Inspector van der Walt. The police raided at dawn and arrested Francisco Dos Santos for the theft of a pair of shoes. Shekeshe verified that the shoes had been his.

Dos Santos remembered being awoken at about 1am on September 17, 2000, about an hour after Lot’s death. “Dudu” and “Misha” were arguing over property that matched what had been stolen from Lot and Shekeshe. He told how Dudu took Lot’s blue phone and gave Misha his old Motorola.

Dudu Nyanga finally came to trial on July 29, 2002. As Lot’s friends gathered at the back of the court, we remarked that Lot was again bringing us together, even in death. His family was there from Johannesburg and the village of Bapong. His friends included young and old, rich and poor, black and white, and gay and straight.

In court, Dos Santos identified Dudu, but believed that Misha had fled to Angola. Dudu denied that he had anything to do with the murder. But his complicated stories were implausible, and he contradicted himself. He implied that every other witness was a liar.

At the back of the court was George Msezane, another old friend of Lot.  He had worked as a bouncer at Skyline, Johannesburg’s first gay bar.  He knew Edwin Cameron, many in the community, and, as it happened, the policeman guarding Dudu.  One morning, before the judge arrived, the cop joked that when he had fetched Dudu from his cell, he’d found him praying for forgiveness.  George spoke with Dudu in the dock. His description of Misha fit with someone he had met a couple of months before, but not seen since.

Advocate Simelane listened carefully to all of Lot’s friends, from Merafe, the lawyer, to George, the bouncer. Armed with the right questions, he secured a conviction.

The final outrage came on the day of sentencing. Dudu arrived in court wearing one of Lot’s shirts. We were left wondering whether he was wearing it as a trophy, or if he had simply forgotten where he’d picked it up.  The judge sentenced him to life.

The conviction was a triumph of Lot’s friendships, which endured and still bring joy.  Many of his friends have flourished, although sadly, two of the friends who were at his trial have since passed.

George Msezane, who helped spot inconsistencies in the defendant’s story, died of AIDS in 2003.  Winston and I spoke at his funeral in Soweto.  Afterwards, Winston and I celebrated George with “after tears” at a café in Yeoville just around the corner from the house where Lot had lived.

Winston, who made the connections that found the killer, died in 2005.

Edwin Cameron, who prodded the police into action, finished his term on the Supreme Court of Appeal, then served on the bench of the Constitutional Court until he retired in 2019.  Aside from his legal career, Edwin worked with Treatment Action Campaign to secure medicine for everyone with HIV in South Africa.  He remains the only senior South African official to state publicly that he is living with HIV.

Shekeshe Mogkosi, Lot’s housemate, who discovered his body, is alive and well living in Johannesburg.  About eight years ago, for a couple of years, he and I fell out of touch.  I was in Johannesburg in 2014 for work and neglected to call him.  As chair of All Out, I went to a meeting at The Other Foundation, Africa’s leading organization fighting for the rights of LGBT people.  On my way there I drove along a leafy route which brought back memories of Lot.  He had taught me that route to his home in Yeoville.  I wondered what he would say if he were in the car.  I did not need to ponder.  I immediately heard him say:

“You have been in Johannesburg for a week and you have not called Shekeshe.  Give him a call before you leave”.

OK, I thought, I’ll give him a call after the meeting.

I did not need to wait.  I walked into the meeting and bumped into Shekeshe.  We each asked:

“What are you doing here?”

I did not realize that he was working at The Other Foundation, where he is now Head of Operations.  Lot was still bringing us together.  I like to think that he would have appreciated the work we were doing.  He was a vocal advocate of equal rights.  He was proud that South Africa was the first country in the world to enshrine equal rights for LGBT people in its constitution.  I remember him acknowledging with a wry grin that he was the namesake of a citizen of Sodom.

This January Shekeshe and his partner Mogola cooked a feast for me and Tom Mkhwanazi, another friend of Lot.  We reminisced about Lot, and how he brought us together.  The night before Tom and I had visited Liquid Blue, a bar in Johannesburg with great music and an exuberant, friendly gay crowd.  We reflected that Lot would have loved the mix of people, the good conversation, the kindness shown to a man in a wheelchair, and the messiness.

This year, as people have been saying “black lives matter” and are talking about “white privilege”, I’ve been imagining conversations with Lot, and remembering what he taught me.

Lot embraced my whiteness, and was not intimidated by difference, nor was he deferential.  On our first date in 1994 in Cape Town he took me to see “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”.  We both marveled at the joy of the two of us, an African man and a European man (living in America), watching a cast of Australians and an Asian woman.  I never heard him quote Audré Lorde, but he his actions fit with her words: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”  He would say “be curious and make new friends”, because that is what he did.  He would not have much time for cutting off friends in scorn.

Lot saw privilege as a gift with a duty.  If I were rich, I should be a good employer.  If I live in South Africa, I should employ people around the house.  As a white foreigner, I could help create jobs by persuading friends to drink wine from South Africa.  He had no time for white people who declared their guilt about apartheid, and then did nothing.  He saw through their virtue signaling.  Today he would see through the “performative allyship.”  We can use privilege to be anti-racist.  Or we can do nothing, which is racist.

Lot did not let my white privilege give me a free pass.  He was clear:

“If you are going to live in South Africa, you are not going to live white.”

In Cape Town he taught me how to use minibus taxis run by blacks and shunned by whites.  He insisted that I use them on my own, which I did, first scared, then curious, and finally familiar.  In Johannesburg, if he came to see me, then I had to go to see him, in his home, in Yeoville.  You can see where the power lies by looking at who goes to whom.  He insisted on equal power.

He would have called out the power dynamics of 2020.  Many black friends are angry and feel not heard.  Other folks are talking amongst themselves and making bestsellers of books by white saviors.  Our communities are still divided.

As I write this, I can feel him tapping on my shoulder saying: “Be a good friend and make new friends; share your power, don’t hold onto it.”

After tears, sharing power brought a killer to justice 20 years ago.  It might this year vote a killer out of office.

I will end by thanking Kenny Lawrence of Cape Town for making this all possible.  Lot and I met in Cape Town in 1994 in the messiest of circumstances.  After a brief encounter Lot shyly disappeared and I lost him in the crowd.  He told Kenny who ran after me and said with the sweetest of smiles “Please can I introduce you to my friend”.  I did not make the connection until he led me back to a rather sheepish Lot.  Kenny is still a good friend, as is Lot.