When a publisher told Justine van der Leun to concentrate her story on a white American family’s forgiveness and employment of the likely killers of their daughter in Gugulethu, a township outside Cape Town, the writer wisely demurred. Instead, she wrote “We Are Not Such Things,” a lengthy, dense and moving account of her yearslong investigation into the circumstances surrounding Amy Biehl’s death on Aug. 25, 1993.
Van der Leun came to realize that Biehl’s death at the hands of a mob in the twilight of South Africa’s apartheid government, while as awful as initially reported, did not stem from heroic human rights work, as her family, friends and many in the United States wanted to believe.
Rather, the author found that although tragic, it was also mundane, yet another of the many tragic, violent deaths that were part and parcel of a system that for nearly 45 years officially sanctioned and enforced the separation of races.
In an 11-month trial, four township men were tried in the court of a lone white judge on charges of killing Biehl and were likely convicted on the testimony of an unnamed black woman from their township.
They were later given amnesty by the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established to absolve political acts to pave the way to a peaceful post-apartheid transition.
With U.S. help, in 1997 Linda and Peter Biehl set up a foundation in Cape Town in their daughter’s memory and hired two of the four convicted killers recently released from prison.
The author’s quest led her to a curious friendship with the presumed killer, a man nicknamed Easy, and to countless hours in the sprawling township, many spent in her parked car, often the only place that afforded the privacy necessary to conduct interviews with dozens of people.
Eventually her unflagging research uncovered heartbreaking information leading to a more complex — and underreported — scenario.
The book’s title refers to Easy’s reaction to a claim at the TRC that wanton brutality, not a political objective, was the motive for the killing: “No, that’s not true. … We are not such things,” he objected.
Rather than a heartwarming tale of forgiveness and redemption, Van der Leun has written — perhaps at too great length — a very necessary and occasionally confounding account of a small slice of post-apartheid, post-Mandela South Africa, a country that has largely been forgotten in the international maelstrom of terrorism and mass migration. It is a story of frustrated expectations, broken dreams, endemic greed and corruption, but also indomitable human spirit, told against the backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful natural settings.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who reported for the Associated Press for 25 years from North and South America, Europe and East and West Africa.
We Are Not Such Things
By: Justine van der Leun.
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 532 pages, $28.