We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun: EW review
We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation
A beautiful American activist, a brutal crime, an almost unthinkable act of grace: The story of Amy Biehl, a recent Stanford graduate and Fulbright scholar murdered by a South African mob in the chaotic final days of apartheid—and her parents’ subsequent forgiveness of their daughter’s killers—captured headlines across the world. Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela met personally with the family; TV outlets from the Today show to 60 Minutes aired lengthy profiles. Amy, just 26 when she died and passionately committed to the cause of the very people who took her life, was hailed as an accidental martyr, a lovely, tragic symbol of loss and redemption, and the eventual pardon of the perpetrators brought a hopeful coda for a nation still struggling to emerge from an ugly era.
It’s an irresistible narrative—but not, as freelance journalist Justine van der Leun found two decades later, an entirely accurate one. The truths she uncovers in We Are Not Such Things turn out, like most stories polished into myth by time and endless retelling, to be much messier and more ambiguous. Was Biehl the sad collateral damage of political revolt or a random, senseless victim of circumstance? Did the four men convicted of her murder—born into a monstrously unjust system, raised in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence, then thrust into an international spotlight—fit their tidy media profiles? Were they even the right men?
Van der Leun obsessively immerses herself in the case, combing court transcripts and police records, tracking down witnesses and friends and far-flung associates. Of the dozens of sources she finds, she grows especially close to convict-turned-advocate Easy Nofemela, who emerges as one of the most compelling figures in a story steeped in extraordinary characters and circumstances. And We Are Not Such Things—the title is taken from Nofemela’s pained response to a prosecutor’s portrayal of him and his codefendants as “sharks smelling blood”—is an extraordinary book, if sometimes also an exhausting one: a dense and nuanced portrait of a country whose confounding, convoluted past is never quite history. A–
OPENING LINE “The journalists and documentarians and small-time film producers filed out of the van and toward St. Columba Anglican Church.…”