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—a gripping investigation in the vein of the podcast Serial
“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
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.
“A masterpiece of reported nonfiction . . . Justine van der Leun’s account of a South African murder is destined to be a classic.”—Newsday
Van der Leun focuses this tour-de-force depiction of modern South Africa on the 1993 death of Amy Biehl, a white American grad student and anti-apartheid activist living in Cape Town who was murdered by a mob as apartheid fell. The narrative follows Van der Leun as she uncovers a series of discrepancies surrounding Biehl's murder and the subsequent truth and reconciliation commission for Biehl's killers. 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. With a strong voice and exact vocabulary, Van Der Leun expertly juxtaposes the lives of white elites with the grim reality of the black township. Van Der Leun succeeds in telling a complex, nuanced, and perhaps ultimately unknowable story that will captivate all readers.