We Are Not Such Things: The Murder Of A Young American, A South African Township, And The Search For Truth And Reconciliati by Justine van der LeunWe Are Not Such Things: The Murder Of A Young American, A South African Township, And The Search For Truth And Reconciliati by Justine van der Leun

We Are Not Such Things: The Murder Of A Young American, A South African Township, And The Search…

byJustine van der Leun

Hardcover | June 28, 2016

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A gripping investigation in the vein of the podcast Serial—a summer nonfiction pick by Entertainment Weekly and The Wall Street Journal

Justine van der Leun reopens the murder of a young American woman in South Africa, an iconic case that calls into question our understanding of truth and reconciliation, loyalty, justice, race, and class.

“Timely . . . gripping, explosive . . . the kind of obsessive forensic investigation—of the clues, and into the soul of society—that is the legacy of highbrow sleuths from Truman Capote to Janet Malcolm.”The New York Times Book Review

“A masterpiece of reported nonfiction . . . Justine van der Leun’s account of a South African murder is destined to be a classic.”—Newsday


The story of Amy Biehl is well known in South Africa: The twenty-six-year-old white American Fulbright scholar was brutally murdered on August 25, 1993, during the final, fiery days of apartheid by a mob of young black men in a township outside Cape Town. Her parents’ forgiveness of two of her killers became a symbol of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. Justine van der Leun decided to introduce the story to an American audience. But as she delved into the case, the prevailing narrative started to unravel. Why didn’t the eyewitness reports agree on who killed Amy Biehl? Were the men convicted of the murder actually responsible for her death? And then van der Leun stumbled upon another brutal crime committed on the same day, in the very same area. The true story of Amy Biehl’s death, it turned out, was not only a story of forgiveness but a reflection of the complicated history of a troubled country.

We Are Not Such Things is the result of van der Leun’s four-year investigation into this strange, knotted tale of injustice, violence, and compassion. The bizarre twists and turns of this case and its aftermath—and the story that emerges of what happened on that fateful day in 1993 and in the decades that followed—come together in an unsparing account of life in South Africa today. Van der Leun immerses herself in the lives of her subjects and paints a stark, moving portrait of a township and its residents. We come to understand that the issues at the heart of her investigation are universal in scope and powerful in resonance. We Are Not Such Things reveals how reconciliation is impossible without an acknowledgment of the past, a lesson as relevant to America today as to a South Africa still struggling with the long shadow of its history.

Praise for We Are Not Such Things

“[Van der] Leun probes the characterization of [Amy] Biehl as a martyr to the cause of black South African liberation, and examines the murder, the trials, and the afterlives of witnesses, detectives, and the accused. She displays exquisite insights into the inner lives of those involved, the erasure of shameful histories, and the stresses of absolution without accountability.”The New Yorker

“Moving . . . 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.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Unforgettable . . . a gripping narrative that examines the messiness of truth, the illusory nature of reconciliation, [and] the all too often false promise of justice.”The Boston Globe
Justine van der Leun is the author of the travel memoir Marcus of Umbria. She has written about South Africa for Harper’s and The Guardian. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Title:We Are Not Such Things: The Murder Of A Young American, A South African Township, And The Search…Format:HardcoverDimensions:544 pages, 9.6 × 6.3 × 1.2 inPublished:June 28, 2016Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812994507

ISBN - 13:9780812994506

Reviews

Read from the Book

1.Some stories are true that never happened.—Elie WieselThe journalists and documentarians and small-time film producers filed out of the van and toward St. Columba Anglican Church, a gray-brick building on the corner of NY1 and NY109 in Gugulethu, a township eleven miles outside Cape Town city center. Easy and I stayed behind, he in the driver’s seat and me on the passenger’s side. Easy was a short, compact man with butterscotch skin and a large, round, clean-shaven head. At forty-two, he had this weird ability to shape-shift. Did he look like a hardened old gangster? Yes, some days. Did he look like an adorable, harmless child? Yes, some days. In one of the photos I’ve snapped of him over the years, he is menacing, crouching on the ground with a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, his band of brothers behind him, one of them holding up a disembodied sheep’s head. But in the next, he’s curled on a small stool, cradling his infant son and smiling as his ten-year-old daughter drapes herself over his shoulder.Easy laughed generously, from the belly, and moved in quick spurts. His features were framed by a constellation of small dark scars: from a knife fight, a stick fight, an adolescent bout with acne, that time he crashed a van into a horse in the middle of the night and then fled, that time the taxi he was riding in collided with a hatchback, and a recent incident involving a scorned ex-girlfriend with long nails and a vendetta. His arms were dotted with fading ballpoint-pen tattoos—one pledging devotion to a long-defunct street gang, one to a prominent prison gang, and one to an old flame named Pinky. The first one had become infected immediately, when he was fifteen, and his mom had spent months tending to it. After that, for a few years at least, Easy felt like it made him look particularly tough.I liked Easy very much. I won’t pretend otherwise. But then again: precisely twenty years before our meeting in the van, on August 25, 1993, and approximately fifteen yards away, Easy had been part of a mob that had hunted down a young white American woman. If you plucked her out of that moment in history and slotted me in, my fate would have likely been the same. Easy chased her through the streets, chanting the slogan “One settler, one bullet,” and hurled jagged bricks at her. He stabbed at her as she begged for her life. She died, bleeding from her head and her chest, on the pavement just across the road.At least this is the crime Easy repeatedly claimed to have committed. He was convicted of her murder, and sentenced to eighteen years in jail. He’d done it, he publicly stated, because “during that time my spirit just says I must kill the white.” The dead woman was named Amy Biehl, and she was twenty-six years old.Once we finished our conversation, Easy and I hopped out of the van. He locked the door and patted the hood. The vehicle was a shiny silver donation from a local auto dealership that said across the side in bold letters: the amy biehl foundation.We walked toward the church together, but as I stepped toward the door, Easy lingered in the winter sunshine. “I’m coming now,” he said. This was South Africanese for “I’ll be right back.”I went on without him. A sorry-eyed man in an ill-fitting suit motioned me into a pew. I slid in and scanned the room, its high ceilings, its tall burning votives. On a portrait nailed high above on the wall, a white Jesus, as lithe and glossy as a Hollywood star, reclined among a small herd of angelic lambs. Behind the pulpit hung an enormous cross.I could see Amy Biehl’s mother, Linda, sitting several rows ahead, her sharp platinum bob distinct in a dark sea of cornrows, weaves, wraps, curls, and towering church hats. Linda was the sort of woman who swept into town, and then swept into rooms, and then swept around rooms, her lipstick and eyeliner painted in broad, unbroken lines. She was nearly seventy. She liked to tell stories to rapt audiences. She always set her jaw and held her head high, and when I had first met her, just over a year earlier, I had found her to be impossibly composed. But with time, I came to notice that her body betrayed her attempts at imperturbable dignity: her shoulders slumped forward and she seemed, often, to be fighting against a great weight that threatened to drag her down.Her friends, a pair of white American filmmakers, flanked her in the pew. She held in her arms a three-year-old black girl, hair cropped close to the head, dressed all in purple. The father of the girl was a man named Ntobeko Peni. According to all available reports, court records, and his own voluntary confession, Ntobeko had joined Easy and two other men in the attack on Amy. Back then, Ntobeko was a teenager and Easy and the other men were in their early twenties.South Africa was in the final, fiery days of apartheid, when the entire country seemed poised for civil war. The young men, in the stories they would later repeat to various officials and commissions and journalists, had just left a political rally for a fringe militant party called the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, or the PAC. Ntobeko and Easy were among around one hundred young people marching down NY1, the street where the church still sits. After forty-five years of state-sanctioned racial segregation, which saw black South Africans stripped of basic human rights and contained in slums, Nelson Mandela was poised to be the first black president of the country. Apartheid was on its way to being dismantled.Amy, a Fulbright scholar at a Cape Town university, had spent nearly a year researching the rights and roles of disadvantaged women and children of color in this transitioning new democracy. That day, she had agreed to give two black students a lift home to the townships. As she drove by, the marchers spotted her, her long dirty-blond hair a bull’s-eye. The crowd, knowing nothing about her, decided she looked very much like the oppressor. Her death, they claimed to believe, would further their cause to bring African land back to indigenous Africans: One settler, one bullet. Or maybe they were just looking for revenge on a pretty afternoon. They pulled Amy from her car, chased her down the road, and stoned and stabbed her to death on a little patch of grass in front of a gas station.Four men—Easy and Ntobeko among them—were tried and convicted of Amy’s murder and were sentenced to eighteen years in prison. But in 1997, they applied for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa’s experiment in restorative justice. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission offered release and a clean slate to those who, upon taking responsibility, fully and honestly, for their apartheid-era crimes, could prove that their misdeeds were politically motivated.In 1993, Linda, a stay-at-home mom turned clothing saleswoman, and her husband, Peter, a businessman, lived in a wealthy California coastal suburb. They had never before set foot on the African continent, but soon after Amy’s death they flew to Cape Town. They immersed themselves in the rapidly changing country. They educated themselves on its complex political situation. They threw themselves into social welfare programs and spent time with the political elite of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party and the party Amy had admired.“We want to carry on where our daughter left off,” Peter told a TV reporter. “We want to assist at the grassroots level anyone who’s working for human rights and women’s rights in particular. We want to be just as active as she was.”The ANC, for its part, took the Biehls into their fold. Amy had been a “comrade,” the ANC announced. Moreover, she had been a martyr for their cause: liberty for all, racial harmony, and equality. Also, it looked good to have these two appealing, well-off Americans stand up for the ANC. Eventually Linda and Peter became friendly with a bunch of the liberation-era luminaries: Mandela himself; Archbishop Tutu; deputy president and soon-to-be-president Thabo Mbeki; and Ahmed Kathrada, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment with Mandela in 1964.In 1997, when the men convicted of killing Amy sat before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Biehls, too, attended. They decided that Amy, who often wrote of the importance of reconciliation and moving forward in post-apartheid South Africa, would have wanted them to respect the processes of this new democracy. And so, unlike many families of victims, the Biehls did not oppose amnesty for Amy’s killers, and the men were released from prison in 1998, after serving between three and five years.A University of California at Berkeley anthropologist named Nancy Scheper-Hughes—who now sat near Linda in a pew in St. Columba Church—had been working in South Africa in 1993. She had written about the crime and the trial in several academic papers. In the ensuing years, when Nancy was not tracking an international ring of organ traffickers or looking into infant mortality rates in the Brazilian favelas, she was investigating violence in post-apartheid South Africa. She had grown especially intrigued by Easy and Ntobeko, and in August 1999 she hired a guide to take her to Gugulethu, where the men were staying after their release from prison. Nancy interviewed them, and they expressed to her an admiration for Peter Biehl (“a hero father,” according to Ntobeko) and the desire to meet him in person, and to apologize face-to-face.“I thought that there was one thing that could possibly make me better,” Ntobeko confessed to Nancy. “I wanted to tell Mr. Biehl that I did not take the death of his daughter lightly. That this thing has weighed heavily on me. And I wanted him to know that he is a hero father to me. If I could just get Peter Biehl to listen to me and to forgive me to my face—why that would be as good as bread.”Nancy called Peter, who was staying at a Cape Town hotel at the time, and arranged for such a meeting.“He probably thought I was a real buttinski,” she recalled.Peter, Nancy, and Nancy’s guide proceeded to drive to Gugulethu for what began, Nancy told me, as a “tense meeting, on a miserable, rainy day.” She stood to the side, taking copious notes and snapping photos, as a sullen, skinny Ntobeko and a sullen, skinny Easy patted down a grave Peter Biehl, checking him for a gun in case he took this meeting as an opportunity for a couple of revenge killings. Then the men ushered Peter into a shack they had claimed as their “clubhouse,” a drafty hovel with a couple of small chairs and a love seat. The three spoke to each other, gruffly at first, but soon they softened. Easy served Peter tea. Easy and Ntobeko explained to Peter that they were starting a youth group; the bunch had already climbed Table Mountain together and they’d designed T-shirts. They nicknamed Nancy “the bridge” for her role in connecting the two worlds. They asked to meet Linda, who was in America, where her youngest daughter, Molly, had just given birth to a baby boy. Soon thereafter, Linda arrived in Cape Town and accompanied Peter to Gugulethu. Ntobeko and Easy were waiting for her. Easy showed her a photograph of his six brothers. Linda in turn showed him a photograph of her new grandson.“Makhulu,” Easy said.“What does that mean?”“Grandmother.”From then on, Easy and Ntobeko addressed Linda and Peter as Makhulu and Tatomkhulu, respectively: Grandmother and Grandfather in the Xhosa language, honorifics used to express reverence. Linda and Peter spent a lazy Sunday evening as guests of honor at the official launch of Easy and Ntobeko’s youth club; mostly it involved sitting outside and watching kids dance and give speeches. Next, the Biehls invited the men to dinner.“Easy’s mother said we would be given such things,” Ntobeko whispered when a waiter presented them menus a few days later. Until then, the young men’s dining out experience had been limited to a few trips to a takeaway joint.Easy shoveled in steak and a milkshake, leaving his vegetables pushed to the side of his plate, while Ntobeko, who had a more adventurous culinary spirit, picked at a towering pile of nachos and then watched in wonder as the remainder was gathered into a package called a “doggie bag.” The four ambled over the wide, sanded docks by the ocean and into the mall. During apartheid, the men had had limited access to white-designated areas, the sorts of places that boasted ritzy shops and restaurants. When apartheid fell, they were in prison. Since they’d left prison, they hadn’t had a penny to their names. The Biehls bought four tickets to an IMAX film about water, and then the group wandered around the adjacent BMW dealership, admiring the shiny cars until showtime. After that, the Biehls bought four tickets to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Linda fell asleep during the movie. It was too late for the men to catch a taxi, so the Biehls drove into the township at night and deposited the men at their homes.The next morning, Easy called Linda at her hotel to inform her that, in a rare turn of events, a small tornado had swept through the township in the early morning hours, flattening shacks. He was checking to see that the Biehls had gotten back safely. He also wished to tell the Biehls that his family was furious at him, since Ntobeko had returned home with leftover nachos to share, while Easy had returned empty-handed. The legend of the doggie bag had then been disseminated through the families and has endured. Years later, while dining with Easy and Ntobeko and their relatives, Linda once excused herself to go to the restroom; when she returned, her meal, which she had not finished, was boxed up and sitting in front of one of the guests.The Biehls developed a warm relationship with Easy and Ntobeko, which they maintained felt entirely natural. They took them to dozens of restaurants, taught them how to tip, introduced them to wine. Soon, they employed the two men to work at the foundation they had established in Amy’s name.The Amy Biehl Foundation, initially funded largely by the American government, was supposed to work to prevent violence, create jobs, develop the area, provide food, and offer recreation opportunities within Cape Town’s townships. But these days, the foundation focused on after-school classes for local kids. The staff taught dance and reading and music, and handed out jam sandwiches.

Editorial Reviews

“We Are Not Such Things overturns the conventional narrative of [Amy] Biehl’s murder by trying to establish what actually happened, and by examining its effects, over two decades, on the people involved. In this way, its publication could not be more timely, given how many young black South Africans are now expressing anger at—and betrayal by—the Mandela project. . . . Where [Justine van der Leun’s] book is gripping, explosive even, is in the kind of obsessive forensic investigation—of the clues, and into the soul of society—that is the legacy of highbrow sleuths from Truman Capote to Janet Malcolm. . . . [Van der Leun] can write superbly, and . . . she crafts a close sense of place that rivals the work of Katherine Boo. . . . She is deeply compelling as a sleuth and social observer: The book becomes a page turner. . . . The reader leaves it, as one does any well-wrought mystery, with precisely the author’s own sense that truth resides in the failure to find it.”—The New York Times Book Review“Engaging . . . part whodunnit and part travelogue . . . a deeply researched and thought-provoking book . . . with some penetrating insights.”—The Economist“[Van der] Leun probes the characterization of [Amy] Biehl as a martyr to the cause of black South African liberation, and examines the murder, the trials, and the afterlives of witnesses, detectives, and the accused. She displays exquisite insights into the inner lives of those involved, the erasure of shameful histories, and the stresses of absolution without accountability.”—The New Yorker“Extraordinary . . . Justine van der Leun’s account of a South African murder is destined to be a classic. . . . Van der Leun stays with the story, all of it, and crafts a narrative both fuller and more intimate than the one the world was told. She takes nothing away from Amy, whose murder was horrific. But she impresses upon the reader that no one life or death is worth more than another. For this, and for writing a masterpiece of reported nonfiction, she deserves our plaudits and our awe.”—Newsday“A 1993 killing sheds light on the complexities of modern South Africa.”—The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice “Unforgettable . . . a gripping narrative that examines the messiness of truth, the illusory nature of reconciliation, [and] the all too often false promise of justice.”—The Boston Globe“Compelling . . . [van der Leun] has a resident’s wry familiarity with the jangling contradictions of a country in which shopping malls sit side by side with shantytowns, while retaining an outsider’s unsentimental perspective on its ongoing racial tensions, and a bracing scepticism about the rhetoric of liberation. [Her] hard-nosed reconstruction of an alternative narrative . . . raises troubling, and still pertinent, questions about the deals that sometimes have to be struck by former enemies when faced with the exigencies of nation-building.”—The Guardian “Gripping . . . Van der Leun recounts in her nuanced but unforgiving style . . . a Truman Capote–style detective story. . . . Beautifully written and carefully observed, some readers might actually wish it were longer. In the end, it manages to perform that rare alchemy of transforming the particular into something more universal.”—Financial Times“Moving . . . 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.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune   “In this gripping narrative, van de Leun provides a first-person account of her attempts to investigate the contradictory stories about Biehl’s death, and also probes what the myths about this episode convey about contemporary South Africa.”—The National Book Review “Powerful . . . [a] stunning portrait of a country.”—Library Journal   “[A] tour de force . . . Amid the suspense of her investigation, van der Leun skillfully weaves in glimpses into contemporary South Africa, delving into issues such as the systemic disenfranchisements caused by apartheid, the colonial legacies of the British and the Dutch, rampant police brutality, government ineptitude, and the myriad issues that the country now faces in a fractured system. . . . Van der Leun succeeds in telling a complex, nuanced, and perhaps ultimately unknowable story that will captivate all readers.”—Publishers Weekly“An extraordinary book . . . [a] nuanced portrait of a country whose confounding, convoluted past is never quite history.”—Entertainment Weekly   “A fascinating case study, a feat of investigative journalism that offers entrée into the impossibly murky potage of present-day South African national dynamics. It’s also, I was pleased to discover, a total page-turner, a gripping Serial-like true-crime story.”—Vogue“This suspenseful and engrossing story calls into question the simplicities people yearn for when justice is sought for a vicious crime. Justine van der Leun shows how a powerful desire for reconciliation can in fact obscure the truth, a truth we need in order to establish the equity and justice that all people deserve.”—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black“What an achievement! This absorbing account of the pursuit of the truth about an infamous and symbolic crime is consummate in its reach and penetration. The great undying issues in moral forensics are here: forgiveness, reparation, restorative justice, the role of untruth. The human portraiture, the included capsules of relevant history, the evocation of real life in the townships of the Cape—all are superbly done. The word brilliant applies to all aspects of the book. This unsparing but compassionate work will enlighten and shake its readers.”—Norman Rush, author of Mating   “This is a murder story told with the dramatic tension of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the precision of the very best nonfiction reporting. Justine van der Leun obsessively investigated the killing of twenty-six-year-old American Amy Biehl during the waning days of South African apartheid. Van der Leun takes her readers on hair-raising excursions into the mazes of backyard shacks where Biehl’s killers were raised and into the often-absurd world of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Each page bursts with fresh insights into the contradictions of modern-day South Africa as well as the elusiveness of finding the absolute truth.”—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy and Logavina Street   “Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things is a fascinating, clear-eyed journey into the disheartening political reality of contemporary South Africa. In her pursuit of the facts behind a decades-old murder, she shatters convenient narratives about the end of apartheid and the nature of justice, and proceeds on a headlong chase for deeper truths, even those that recede the closer she gets to them. Along the way, she lays bare the relationship between legal and political truths, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride into the depths of the reporting process itself, exposing both the perils, and the necessity, of truth-seeking.”—Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside   “This is a troubling, deeply felt piece of work. Van der Leun’s excellent reportage reveals that things are not what they seem in South Africa. The book is proof that apartheid has left behind a league of ghosts, Amy Biehl among them, and that the South Africa that Nelson Mandela envisioned remains a distant dream.”—James McBride, author of Kill ’Em and Leave   “We Are Not Such Things grants the reader an extraordinary and profound privilege: the capacity to inhabit fully a place, a history, a moment, a human heart. This is not just fine journalism but astonishing storytelling, and it is why we read. Justine van der Leun brings to the page a rare combination of muscular reporting, limitless curiosity, soulful vision, courage, and tenderness. She ceaselessly questions both herself and others. Through her gifts, you will feel as if you have traveled deep into a country you only thought you knew—South Africa—and become intimate with people in their most vulnerable, strange, and beautiful moments. Like all the most impactful journeys one undertakes in life, you won’t want to let go of this one, ever.”—Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace