Review: We Are Not Such Things, Justine van der Leun

Well that was a long and frustrating book. The New York Times review of Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things promised that the book would “overturn” the traditional narrative of Amy Biehl’s death, and in the process expose the weaknesses of the famed and beloved South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In case you aren’t familiar with Amy Biehl’s story (I wasn’t), she was an activist and Fulbright scholar who was attacked and murdered in the South African township of Gugulethu in 1993, on the eve of apartheid’s demise. Four men were convicted of her murder, then later pardoned under the terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered amnesty for political crimes in exchange for full public disclosure. Biehl’s parents publicly offered forgiveness to her killers and even employed two of them at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which they established in South Africa to empower township youths.

We Are Not Such Things

Van der Leun’s efforts to uncover the story of what happened on the day of Amy Biehl’s murder are tireless. She’s able to track down and speak with an impressive number of the people involved — police, suspects, witnesses — although twenty years on, they rarely have much of substance to add to official accounts. The thrust of Van der Leun’s argument seems to be that neither the South African criminal justice system in 1993 nor the political and social systems in of the present day are perfect. Which, I mean — yeah? Systems are flawed? I don’t know that I needed to spend 500 pages navigating class divisions in South Africa in order to be convinced of that.

As a travel writer, Justine van der Leun evokes the people and places of poverty-stricken South Africa incredibly well. Well, but at incredible length. We spend page after page on the family drama of one of the convicted killers, Easy Nofemela, and don’t get me wrong: He’s a wonderful character in van der Leun’s telling. It’s just not clear why, in a book ostensibly dedicated to unpicking the many threads of Amy Biehl’s 1993 murder, so many chapters are dedicated to Easy and Justine driving around shooting the shit.

Though the book is certainly overlong and could have done with being shortened by about a third, I think expectations were also a factor in my unenjoyment. Many South Africans have grown critical (or always were) of the TRC’s work, and I hoped that van der Leun would bring to light some of these criticisms and how the TRC’s failings continue to affect South African lives. That isn’t this book, and it’s not clear that van der Leun even wanted it to be.

My love for scholarship on restorative justice remains undimmed, however! While I was reading this, I also dipped in and out of Priscilla Hayner’s classic text on truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths, and it is just as excellent as I remembered. What a fascinating subject.

POLL TIME! Who here knew who Amy Biehl was when I first mentioned her name? And secondary question, this one for millennials only: Were you aware of apartheid as a kid? I totally was not, and it’s really weird to think that that was still going on when I was in grade school.

  • MumsyNK

    I remembered her, kind of. I remembered the girl who was murdered on the eve of apartheid because it seemed so brutal and tragic – killed by the very people she had tried to help -but although I kind of recognized the name, I couldn’t have pulled it from my memory. Such a sad story. Btw, listened to the guy who wrote Blood At The Root, about the ethnic cleansing of ForsythCounty, GA in 1912, and it sounds unbearably painful to read. Just a heads up.

    • Oh, yeah, I have heard of that. I may not read it for now. I just got through reading this extremely sad book, and I think my next nonfiction read is going to be about the secrets of the galaxy. :p

  • I also sort of knew who Amy Biehl was, but I might not have known without the South Africa context, and I did have to Google to verify that her story is the one I was thinking of. I read a novel called Mother to Mother years ago that was a fictionalized version of how the mother of one of the killers might have felt (written by a neighbor of one of the killers). I can’t remember it well enough to recommend it (or not), but it was one of the first books that I’d ever read about South Africa, so it stands out as important to me.

    • Okay, interesting! I have nooooo idea what the first book I read about South Africa was. It had to have been pretty recently, I think? Like within the last five years? (I’m ashamed to say.)

  • Had never heard of this before…and had heard of apartheid, but am definitely not a millennial! Do they not teach it in schools?

    Sorry this one didn’t work for you….frustrating when books just go on and on and on..

    • Hahahaha, I very seriously doubt they teach it in schools to kids today. I’m basing that on my own education re: recent world history. I think I got a fairly good education, as these things go, but I was taught virtually nothing about international events and definitely nothing about the recent past in the world history.

  • I had no recollection of Amy’s name and looked her up. Turns out that I completely missed that story, as I had my first baby on Aug. 23 that year and was pretty thoroughly cocooned two days later when it happened.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I have no recollection regarding Amy Biehl. But 1993 was a long time ago and I was in grad school worrying about and writing my thesis and not very attuned to world events that year.

  • Katherine Koba

    The name Amy Biehl is totally new to me. Apartheid ended in 1994, so I might not have been aware of it at the time (I have a hard time remembering back that far), but I knew from a fairly young age that things in South Africa had not been right and who Nelson Mandela was, etc. I had an amazing 5th grade teacher who was dedicated to social justice and made a point of engaging with us on serious topics like racism and Hiroshima. I’m pretty sure we talked a bit about South Africa at some point in that class, since the end of apartheid would have been fairly recent still at that point.

    • Wow, that’s so great that your teacher bothered to get into all that stuff with y’all! I wonder if she ever got pushback from parents on that stuff.

  • Have never heard of her, but did know about apartheid (but I’m not a millennial, so that doesn’t count), although I found it confusing (but that’s probably because I wasn’t interested in global issues at the time – I was too busy being young.) Maybe I should read a book about it. But I guess not this one. 🙂

    • Hahha, yeah, not this one! I’m sure I’ll read a good book about apartheid sometime in the next few years, and when that happens I will alert you. :p

  • Never heard of Amy Biehl but I did know about the apartheid growing up (I am a Millenial). Since I studied in Dubai, we had apartheid to study about it school. Nelson Mandela was a prominent presence in many of our lessons.

    • See! My theory was that Americans were insanely undereducated about apartheid, and you learning about it in Dubai confirms that theory. Hot take: Americans should learn more world history. :p

  • Never heard about Amy Biehl. I am not a millennial but I knew about apartheid. Strange to think that there is an entire generation that has never heard of it and doesn’t know what it was.

    • Isn’t it? I mean it was still happening when I was in school, and I knew not a thing about it. I guess I sort of knew who Nelson Mandela was? Maybe?

  • I’m pretty sure I heard the word apartheid when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what it meant in general or in South Africa specifically. I definitely never heard of Amy Biehl, though

    • No, me either! The book kind of posited her as a widely known symbol of the decline of apartheid and the successes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I was a bit suspicious of whether that was true.

  • I hadn’t heard of Amy Biehl before this. I did know about apartheid (but I’m Generation X so, doesn’t count) because I listened to the news pretty regularly. Mentions of it in school were incredibly surface-level (shamefully so) until mid-college, maybe. Which is sad, because Mandela was elected during my last semester of high school. Big news, pretty much ignored in my “current events” class.

    • No, still counts! I am interested to hear about other generations’ experiences than my own. I’m mainly trying to figure out how ashamed I should be that I didn’t know about it until I was an adult. :p

  • Christy

    I didn’t recognize Amy Biehl’s name but when you gave the summary about her murder and what her parents chose to do, I recalled that I had read about Biehl’s story in a book about forgiveness by Desmond Tutu. I was born in the early 80’s, but I don’t remember when I learned about apartheid. I have no strong memories of discussing it in school.

  • I had never heard of Amy Biehl and didn’t learn about apartheid until maybe college?

  • Never heard of Amy Biehl, which is…wow! And man, I’d be frustrated by this book, too, because I’d definitely go in expecting some kind of revelation or “juice”, if you will. I’m a borderline Millennial and really only learned surface information (this is Nelson Mandela…) until I was a freshman in COLLEGE (and had an African history course), which I didn’t realize until right this moment.

  • Alley

    Nope, had never heard of Amy Biehl. But I did know of apartheid, though I don’t know exactly when or that I fully got it.

  • You are right, expectations are a big factor, they influence our enjoyment of any book significantly. And I think this book would frustrate me as well, as I would expect more of it.

    I had never heard of Amy Biehl, but I was aware if apartheid, just never thought of it in this context.

  • I had never heard of Amy Biehl and I don’t know when I learned about Apartheid. We were mostly occupied with the post-USSR-reality, I think. I do remember first realizing that the word itself wasn’t a Dutch translation of a different (English?) concept when I was about twelve.

    By the way, it’s very refreshing to see someone getting Dutch multiple word surnames right! (Beware, though, because Dutch-speaking Belgians do not change the capitalization of the first word of the surname, where we up North only capitalize it when it doesn’t have another part of the name in front of it. So it’s Jan de Vries, or Mr. De Vries. In Dutch Dutch. This piece of completely useless knowledge was partly brought to you by the Dutch government since I’m on my old laptop which my student bursary paid for.)

  • I’d never heard of her! But now I’m so interested. I remember apartheid – but I would have been only 8-ish when it ended, so I more remember how awesome Nelson Mandela was, my mum loved him.

  • 1. I wasn’t familiar with Amy Biehl’s story.

    2. I knew about apartheid when I was a kid because my parents boycotted Shell for supporting it.

  • Nishita

    I had never heard of her, and to be honest, I am kind of shocked that her killers could get away scot-free and not only that, be employed by her parents!

  • Nope, never heard of her. And I think I was aware of apartheid by middle school, but I’m not sure.