Book Review: We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun

Having lived in South Africa, I simply had to read We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation when I first came across it.

The story is about  author Justine van der Leun’s quest to get to the bottom of what really happened the day Amy Biehl, an American student on a Fullbright scholarship in South Africa, was killed by an angry mob in a township near Cape Town in 1993, in that period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president of South Africa. It’s a heartbreaking story: Amy drove into Gugulethu that day to drive home two of her anti-Apartheid activist friends. They were all fighting for social justice, yet she was brutally murdered by some of the very people whose welfare she was most concerned about.

I vaguely remembered the event, and also that Amy’s parents created headlines by publicly forgiving the men convicted of her murder. But I knew none of the details.

If you’re interested in that long-ago story, this book will bring it back in all its detail. The author, an American writer married to a South African, finds herself with time on her hands when first moving to Cape Town, where she stumbles across this story. Believing there are unexplained holes in it, she decides to investigate it on her own.

But Amy Biehl’s murder and its investigation by the author isn’t all there is to We Are Not Such Things. It’s much more than that. I would say it’s one of the best portraits of life in a South African township that I’ve read, at least if you consider it’s written by an outsider. In the course of her investigation, Justine gets to know the main players on that fateful day and forges an especially close bond with one of the men who pleaded guilty to Amy’s murder, Easy Nofemala. He was one of the four men arrested for Amy’s murder in the aftermath – all of whom were, in the end, pardoned by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was formed to address Apartheid-era crimes. Through Easy, Justine gets to meet other witnesses on frequent visits to Gugulethu and surroundings.

township near Cape Town, South Africa
I don’t have pictures of Gugulethu. The closest I have is this picture of another township near Cape Town, Khayelitsha, taken in 2012. It goes on for miles along the highway to the airport.

To me, these visits are the real gem in her book, giving us a glimpse into a world so different from our own. They lay bare something I myself have struggled with in my experiences in a different township, Alexandra. As some of you know, I became involved in the fate of a township baseball team soon after we moved to South Africa, and my experiences helping them in any way I could make for some of my fondest memories. But I always felt a bit uneasy in my dealings with them. Not so much because many consider it unsafe to even enter a South African township, especially one as notorious as Alexandra or Gugulethu. In fact, some of South Africa’s reputation as crime-ridden and violent country probably rests on precisely what happened to Amy Biehl in 1993, but much has changed since then. No, the reason for my unease was mainly that I never quite trusted all of the stories I was told. I would hear one story from the first person I talked to, a totally different from the next, and so on. What happened to the laptop computer I donated to the team? Was it indeed stolen by one of the earlier coaches? Was he indeed caught for some other crime and now lingering in prison? Or was the computer simply sold for a quick profit, something I was assured by others involved with helping the team had certainly happened in the past with donated equipment?

When you forge ties to Africans from the lowest rungs of society who are struggling to get by every day, it’s no surprise that you’ll become their center of attention, and that perhaps some of the stories you are told at least bend the truth a little, so as to make sure you don’t go away. What I learned in my time in South Africa is that with my white middle-class childhood, idyllic compared to that of many of the kids I came across in Alexandra, I have almost no way of understanding their plight and how it might propel their actions. The morals I grew up to embrace that I thought were so ironclad appear a lot more fluid when viewed through this lens. Trevor Noah does an excellent job describing this in his memoir Born a Crime, which I’ve recently reviewed.

Getting back to Justine van der Leun, it is the telling of her quest to understand the Amy Biehl story that is so fascinating. The deeper she digs, the more confusing it gets. Did Easy and the other accused really commit the crime? Were they wrongfully convicted, and if so, why is it so hard to get to the truth? Is there perhaps an ulterior motive for them not wanting to revisit the past, because their present role at the Amy Biehl foundation has become quite comfortable and even profitable, and unraveling the truth would threaten that carefully crafted new life

These are all questions that pop up as you progress through the narrative. It is somewhat unsatisfying that when you turn the last page, you have no idea what really happened that day in 1993. If your sole goal in reading the book is to find out what happened, don’t read it, you’ll be disappointed. I think the publisher wasn’t quite honest in pushing exactly that narrative.

What you do learn is that digging deeper doesn’t always give a satisfying answer, but that it can open a window to an entirely different world from yours, and perhaps even a window into your own soul.

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